The New England Patriots will look to defend their Super Bowl title in 2017. But first, they have some questions to answer.

Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off this week, marking the unofficial start of the NFL offseason, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2016, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town. 

Next up: the linebackers. 

UNDER CONTRACT
Shea McClellin
Kyle Van Noy
Elandon Roberts
Jonathan Freeny
Trevor Bates (practice squad)

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Dont’a Hightower
Barkevious Mingo

STANDOUT PERFORMER
Hightower, who cemented his status as one of the NFL’s premier linebackers with his first Pro Bowl season. He also earned second-team All-Pro honors and made the play that turned the tide of Super Bowl LI, strip-sacking Matt Ryan to spur the Patriots’ historic comeback.

Hightower’s numbers don’t jump off the page, but he’s an excellent run defender and pass rusher and isn’t a liability in pass coverage. He also was a Patriots captain this season for the first time.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
When the Patriots stunningly traded away Jamie Collins on Halloween, Roberts was a leading candidate at to fill the void left by the departed Pro Bowler. Well, that never really happened. Thrust into a larger role, the rookie’s flaws, particularly in coverage, were exposed, and he played fewer than 40 percent of defensive snaps in eight of New England’s final 10 games.

Roberts hits like a truck and can be seriously disruptive when he’s able to speed toward the line with reckless abandon, but he’ll need to work on the other facets of his game if he hopes to become an every-down player.

BY THE NUMBERS
13: The number of games Hightower has missed during his five seasons with the Patriots, including three this season. Injuries are the one factor that might give New England pause about signing the 26-year-old to a big-money contract.

One: The number of snaps McClellin played on offense this season. It’s also the number of field goals he blocked.

BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINE
What will the Patriots do with Hightower? They have four options: 1) sign him to a long-term deal, 2) place the franchise tag on him, 3) place the transition tag on him (here’s the difference between the two) or 4) let him walk in free agency. Losing him would leave a massive hole in the Patriots’ defense, which hasn’t featured a stud middle linebacker since the days of Tedy Bruschi. Re-signing Hightower should be the Patriots’ No. 1 priority this summer, as McClellin, Van Noy and Roberts aren’t nearly talented enough to carry New England’s linebacking corps by themselves.

Patriots offseason preview: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Offensive line | Defensive line/ends | Secondary

Thumbnail photo via Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports Images