Patriots

Pats linebacker group needs serious improvements

Pats linebacker group needs serious improvements

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today we're looking at a spot that positively needs to be better in 2018. Will the linebacker group get better with players returning from injury or is an influx of talent needed.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED

Disappointingly. Early in the season, they ineffectiveness at linebacker and in the secondary led to ex-defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick opting to slide Donta Hightower back from the edge to a linebacker spot. The group, which had already lost another LB/Edge hybrid in Shea McClellin, enjoyed Hightower’s presence for just five games. Communication improved. Busts ceased. It was the way it was supposed to look. Then Hightower got hurt.  A sprained knee kept him out of two; a torn pec suffered against the Falcons ended his season on October 25. That left the team with just one multifaceted linebacker – Kyle Van Noy. And he played really well. He missed three games with a calf injury but he finished with 58 tackles and he was – by the end of the season – seeming to understand the nuance of the Patriots defense and doing what Jerod Mayo stresses over and over: getting everyone on the same page. Elandon Roberts was a disappointment in his second season. He’s a below-average NFL linebacker whose physical limitations are mitigated somewhat by want-to and motor, but he’s a problem (the 69th ranked linebacker in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus). The Patriots got zero from David Harris. Marquis Flowers is a low-budget box safety/linebacker who’s got good athletic attributes but – after being acquired at the end of training camp – found himself with way more on his plate than belonged there. He had his moments of competency but also got lit up in the Super Bowl. Nicholas Grigsby is a special teams guy.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018

Van Noy, Harris, Roberts, Grigsby, Hightower, McClellin.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED

The need is dictated in part by the scheme and since the scheme is always hard to pin down and there is a new defensive coordinator taking over (presuming Brian Flores) it becomes that much more difficult. But let’s look at it from above. Hightower’s injury issues aren’t going to diminish. Roberts’ limitations in coverage and his pedestrian ability against the run are what they are. Van Noy is fine to good. The team needs a thumper that’s better than Roberts and younger than Harris, especially after we watched the way the Eagles walk through tacklers in space in the Super Bowl (when the front-seven can build a wall as they did vs. the Titans and Jags, they are fine). They also need to start shopping for a suitable box-safety linebacker to replace Patrick Chung because the robotic and uninstinctive Jordan Richards ain’t cutting it. If Van Noy, Hightower, McClellin and Roberts stay healthy all season, terrific. Good linebacker group. But what are the odds? Slim, right? Other positions are higher needs right now, but this is a top-four need area.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY

The team had interest in Navarro Bowman when he left the Niners but Bowman signed in Oakland. He’s a helluva ‘backer and showed it with the Raiders. A crusher against the run. The Titans’ Avery Williamson is just 6-1, 240 – shorter than New England likes – but he’s 25, smart and productive (92 tackles in 2017 including nine vs. Patriots). Washington’s Zach Brown is also up after one productive season with Washington but he’s probably going to be seeking significant dough. There’s no real need to hire an old lion like Paul Posluszny to come in and be a two-down addition, especially early in free agency. They are useful, no doubt, but wouldn’t be cost effective. Expect them to re-sign Flowers and continue to groom him. There is upside there. The draft seems a wiser place to forage.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT

When Bill Belichick described Patrick Chung as one of the best players in football it was because of the myriad things he can do. He can get down in the box and work against the running game. He can cover slot receivers. He’s a clampdown guy on tight ends. He doesn’t play like he’s 205, he plays like he’s 220. A player like Chung or, even better, Atlanta’s Deion Jones feels like the prototype for the position. Until offenses pivot and start running RPO with 250-pound nimble backs who run through arms at the second level. Given the Patriots are in five and six-defensive back sets so often, the hybrid backers could be the direction they go. So consider Iowa’s Josey Jewell, who’ll be available after Round 1. Or Leighton Vander Esch from Boise State, also a mid-round guy with massive upside. Jewell is a 6-1, 230-pounder. Vander Esch is 6-4, 240. There’s a lot of variation in their games. If the Patriots want to go early, Alabama’s Rashaan Evans is a linebacker-level Chung in terms of being on attack mode.

HOW THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT

The best and most productive linebackers the Patriots have had since 2008 were Jerod Mayo and Donta Hightower. Not coincidentally, they were first-round picks. The Patriots need to spend draft capital on smart, disciplined players with great measurables and leadership. Enough with the projects and projections (i.e. Jamie Collins, who was a brilliant player but got jettisoned because he bristled at his role). Those guys are had in the first round. Unfortunately, the tackle position which begged addressing last draft was nickel-and-dimed with the selection of Antonio Garcia in the third round and he spent the year on IR with an illness. Tight end, quarterback and corner also loom as areas that need early addressing. You can’t wait for talent at those positions, you have to go and get it in the draft or target a player in free agency who isn’t a special teamer with upside and smarts. The day is coming when the luxury of Tom Brady hanging 30 every Sunday is gone. Finding a bigger, better Chung (or a smaller, faster Hightower) should be an offseason priority. 

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NFL rumors: Rob Gronkowski told teammates after Super Bowl LIII he wanted another ring

NFL rumors: Rob Gronkowski told teammates after Super Bowl LIII he wanted another ring

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski still hasn't announced if he will retire or return for a 10th NFL season, but could he be leaning toward coming back?

Gronkowski's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said Tuesday on ESPN show "NFL Live" that the Patriots star's decision on his future could come within the next few weeks. NFL Media's Mike Giardi provided another tidbit of information on Gronkowski's future with a tweet Tuesday.

It's certainly possible the emotions of winning another Super Bowl led to Gronkowski making these comments to teammates. If true, who could blame him?

Gronk endured a difficult 2018 campaign, one that included a dip in performance, inconsistency and three missed games due to injuries. The 29-year-old star did play better in the playoffs, however, and he made one of the most important plays of New England's Super Bowl LIII victory against the Los Angeles Rams.

If the Patriots want Gronkowski back, it would make sense for him to return for another season if he feels he can withstand the physical toll of 16-plus games (including the playoffs). The Patriots, barring major injuries to key players, figure to be among the top contenders for the Super Bowl again next season. A healthy Gronk would give New England a strong chance to become the first team since the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s to reach the Super Bowl four years in a row.

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NFL mock draft 2019 roundup: Experts see Patriots addressing offense in first round

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NFL mock draft 2019 roundup: Experts see Patriots addressing offense in first round

The New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions for a sixth time in franchise history, but they still have plenty of question marks up-and-down their roster entering the 2019 NFL Draft.

One of the largest uncertainties is the future of tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose agent said Tuesday the Patriots star could make a decision on retirement in the next couple of weeks. Another position of need is wide receiver. Juilian Edelman just became the first wideout in 10 years to win Super Bowl MVP, but the Patriots still need more talent and depth at the position. A vertical deep threat who can excel outside the numbers would be a solid addition for quarterback Tom Brady. Josh Gordon could be that guy, but his status for the 2019 season is up in the air.

Speaking of Brady, is this the draft where New England looks to select the 41-year-old quarterback's eventual replacement? The Patriots have several picks in the first three rounds, so it wouldn't be a shock if they took a chance on one of the top QB prospects. 

Here's a roundup of recent expert NFL mock drafts:

NBC Sports Boston's Phil Perry: T.J. Hockenson, TE, Iowa
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.: Daniel Jones, QB, Duke
NFL.com's Charley Casserly: Noah Fant, TE, Iowa
CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson: Riley Ridley, WR, Georgia
Walter Football: D.K. Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss
The Draft Network: N'Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
NFL.com's Maurice Jones-Drew: T.J. Hockenson, TE, Iowa
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco: D.K. Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss

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