The New England Patriots only added two linebackers over the offseason and both were undrafted rookies. So, they must be pretty happy with their linebacker depth, and it’s tough to blame them.
Dont’a Hightower is a lock to man one starting role this season. The other starting role(s), however, is/are wide open and up for grabs.
The Patriots mostly play in a sub defense, so there’s usually only two linebackers on the field. They’ll use three linebackers in their base defense, however, so there technically are three starting roles.
Behind Hightower, the Patriots have Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, Jonathan Freeny, Brandon King, Trevor Bates, Harvey Langi and Brooks Ellis on their roster. There’s also an outside chance the Patriots could use Rob Ninkovich or Derek Rivers at linebacker, but they’re needed more at defensive end.
Based on skill set and Super Bowl usage, Van Noy has the best shot to earn the second starting spot. He’s better than McClellin and Roberts in coverage, and he’s the best pass rusher among that trio, as well.
Roberts is the best fit as the third base linebacker because, outside of Hightower, he’s their best run defender at the position. Roberts would have to show major strides in coverage to be used on third down this season.
McClellin is solid enough in all facets to be a super sub. He also could play as a defensive end if the Patriots experience injuries on the edge. It’s never a bad idea to give Hightower some time off the field, and McClellin can fill in for him.
Freeny mostly will be used on special teams and as a reserve if the makes the team. King likely will exclusively be used on special teams. Bates probably will be a practice squad player for the second straight season.
Langi has a better chance than Ellis among undrafted players to throw a wrench in these projections. The Patriots guaranteed over $100,000 of Langi’s salary, and he’s a potential four-down player with the strength to defend the run and speed to cover and play special teams. He also has experience as an edge rusher. Hey, he could technically be an eight-down player. Langi also played running back during his time at Utah and BYU.
It’s possible we’re overhyping Langi — he is a UDFA, after all — but his film at BYU was impressive despite being asked to move all over the field. With an impressive training camp and preseason, he has a legitimate chance at a big role in 2017 because of the Patriots’ uncertainty at the other starting spots.
The Patriots also could elect to rotate players at the second and third linebackers spots without starters set in stone. Roberts or McClellin could be used on first down and obvious run downs, and Van Noy could be used on third down and obvious passing situations.
The Patriots don’t have an obvious second starter, but they have multiple talented players, each with their own specialties.
As far as roster spots go, it’s a good bet Hightower, Van Noy, Roberts, McClellin and King will be on the 53-man roster. Freeny, Langi, Ellis and Bates could be battling for just one more open slot.
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