While the New England secondary had some serious struggles last season, the unit with the least talent on the entire Patriots roster was the linebackers. After an injury knocked Dont’a Hightower out for the year, the Patriots were left with just Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts as players returning from the 2016 team. They added David Harris, but that, unfortunately, did not work out for either side as Harris spent most of the year as a healthy scratch. The Patriots also traded a seventh-round pick to the Bengals for Marquis Flowers, who had a surprisingly productive year for New England after coming in with little to no expectations.
However, the Patriots issues at linebacker were clear all year, as they did not have anyone who could consistently cover running backs out of the backfield, and overall, they were not effective against the run. The Patriots lack of linebacker talent is evident simply by the fact that they spent most of the year in a three-safety set with Patrick Chung playing down in the box. While I love Chung both in coverage and as a run stopper, your team clearly has issues when he is essentially spending most of a season as a linebacker-safety hybrid.
The Patriots need a serious infusion of young talent at the linebacker position, and with four picks in the first two round, it is likely that they will select someone to play alongside Hightower and Van Noy. Assuming that the team doesn’t make a trade (we will get to that eventually, don’t worry), then there are only two linebackers who are likely out of reach for New England: Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia’s Roquan Smith. Edmunds is one of the best athletes in the draft and has great size for the next level. Smith also has fantastic athleticism to go along with sharp instincts and high intelligence. Both are likely to be taken within the top 10-12 picks.
The two potential first-round targets for the Patriots are Leighton Vander Esch from Boise State and Rashaan Evans from Alabama.
Vander Esch has incredible athleticism for a player of his size (6’4, 256 lbs). He also has incredible agility and gets to the ball quickly. He has shown impressive talent in coverage, which would be highly valued by a Patriots team that doesn’t have good coverage linebackers. Despite his size, Vander Esch does have some strength issues and can get eaten up by blocks quickly. He would need to fill out at the next level and learn to shed blocks more efficiently with punches and separation.
At 6’3 234 lbs, Evans is a prime example of the new breed of linebacker. He has less size and strength than the bruiser linebackers of old that he makes up for in ridiculous athleticism. His speed is incredible for a linebacker, and he has shown ability in coverage. He is also an intelligent player who diagnoses plays quickly. He has experience as both an edge rusher and an inside backer, which would allow him flexibility at the next level. Evans biggest issue comes from a lack of experience that sometimes manifests in hesitations coming downhill in obvious run situations. However, he has a high ceiling and could be an immediate impact player. He is similar to former Patriot Jamie Collins, with the main difference being that Evans is used to a rigorous and disciplined system under Nick Saban.
Both players have great skill sets and would be an instant improvement to the Patriots linebacking corps. It might be slightly more likely that Evans is the choice because of Belichick’s relationship with Nick Saban and his tendency to like Alabama linebackers, and because the team brought Evans in for an official meeting. However, the team could target either player depending on how the draft plays out, and they will likely be satisfied heading in either direction.
Until next time – B$