Despite some severe issues early on from the Patriots secondary and a general lack of serious pass rush, the worst unit from the start to the end of the season in 2017 was the team’s linebacking corps. They spent an alarming portion of the year (including the Super Bowl) in nickel packages with a safety in the box because they did not have enough depth or talent at the linebacker position. This caused significant issues; as much as I love Patrick Chung, he does not have the size, strength, or skill set to play the role of a linebacker on a consistent basis. New England needs to see serious improvement at the position this season if they plan on making another deep playoff run.
Hightower is undoubtedly the Patriots most talented linebackers and is one of the best players at his position in the entire league. He is a high character player with impressive strength and recognition skills. He has proven himself as a run-stopping MLB, as well as a Von Miller-esque pass rusher. His size and lack of high-level speed make him just average in coverage, but he makes up for that in his run coverage. The issue for Hightower has always been injuries. During his six seasons in the NFL, he has only played one full season, missing at least two (regular season) games in every other season. He has had chronic knee and shoulder problems, as well as other major injuries like a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2017 campaign after just five games. If he can stay healthy, he makes the Patriots defense one of the best in the league. The problem is that that is one big “if”.
Kyle Van Noy
Van Noy stepped up admirably in the wake of Hightower’s injury in 2017. He anchored the defense, proving to be a successful run stopper due to his ability to slip blocks. He was also a fantastic tackler, and a decent pass rusher (at least compared to his teammates). Van Noy doesn’t have Hightower’s size or strength, and he doesn’t quite have the speed of a smaller linebacker. However, he has a strong work ethic and hustles to make every tackle, which is an extremely overlooked quality. The Patriots pride themselves on getting to the ball quickly, which is something Van Noy does well. He could have a better season if Hightower can stay healthy and opposing teams key more on him than on Van Noy.
The Patriots 2016 sixth-round pick has had decent success as a MLB over his two-year career. Like Van Noy, his playing time and responsibilities increased dramatically with the injury to Hightower. His stats improved from his rookie campaign, as the increased playing time allowed him to tally 67 tackles and two sacks. Roberts has one of the quickest accelerations I’ve ever witnessed on a linebacker; he breaks through the offensive line the instant he recognizes a hole in the offensive line. While this leads to some impressive plays, it leads to many more misses where Roberts will get into the backfield and the running back will already be by him. Or in other situations, Roberts will get into the backfield and completely miss the tackle because he doesn’t know how to throttle down and control himself. He is also nearly inept in pass coverage, which was a serious need for the team last season. Roberts is still a young player with serious potential for a sixth-round pick, but he needs to show significant improvements to his tackling and pass coverage this season.
The Patriots received Flowers from the Bengals before the 2017 season in return for a seventh-round pick. While his numbers do not necessarily jump off the page, he had a solid impact for someone with such little expected of him. Flowers had a career-high 30 tackles in 2017, as well as 3.5 sacks. He provided the Patriots linebacking corps with energy and speed, showing skill as an agile pass rusher and an adept tackler. While he does not quite have the size to be an edge setter or a consistent run blocker, he provides New England with depth, versatility, and athleticism.
The Patriots fifth-round pick is a bruiser through and through. He is on the bigger side for a linebacker at 6’2 260 lbs and makes it known. He likes to hit and is a proven run stopper. His selection was a little bit of a surprise considering how much the Patriots linebackers struggled in coverage last season (Bentley has zero pass coverage ability), but the team’s lack of success against opposing run games is likely the reason that Belichick felt that the team needed a player like Bentley.
The Patriots sixth-round pick is a much more versatile player than Bentley, which could work well in New England’s defense. He is an aggressive tackler who has decent coverage experience that the team could utilize. There were questions about his work ethic coming out of college that concern me in a place as brutal and unforgiving as New England, but the right attitude could make him an instant rotational player.
Grigsby is a fringe roster player that achieved some end-of-the-year rotational play for New England in 2017. He is an undersized linebacker who doesn’t seem to cover well enough to make up for his lack of size and strength. However, he does have experience in the Patriots system, and it will be interesting to see him compete with the rookies for a spot.
The undrafted free agent out of BYU had shown significant preseason promise, but a car accident ended his season before he was able to prove himself in a Dont’a Hightower-less defense. He has had a long road to recovery, and it will be interesting to see how he responds during camp. He has a lot of competition, but if he can get back to the level at which he was playing last preseason, he might just be able to snag one of the last few roster spots.
The Patriots surprisingly did not target a linebacker in the early rounds of the draft, despite their need at the position. Whether this was due to a lack of talent, or an oversight, only time will tell.
Until next time – B$