Patriots Offseason Outlook: Linebacker A Clear Area Of Need For New England

New England Patriots outside linebacker Elandon Roberts

Photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images

After having their bid for back-to-back Super Bowl titles thwarted by the Philadelphia Eagles, the New England Patriots have some questions to answer.

Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month, 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 2017, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.

Next up: the linebackers.

Dont’a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Elandon Roberts
David Harris
Nicholas Grigsby
Harvey Langi
Shea McClellin

James Harrison
Marquis Flowers

Van Noy, who blossomed into one of the Patriots’ most versatile front-seven defenders in his first full season with the team.

Despite missing three games with a calf injury and being limited in two others, Van Noy ranked third on the team in tackles (73), second in sacks (5 1/2), second in tackles for loss (seven) and third in quarterback hits (nine).

Harris was a defensive stud for a decade with the New York Jets, but he hardly saw the field in his first season with the Patriots. The 34-year-old played just 17.1 percent of New England’s defensive snaps and was a healthy scratch for nine of the team’s 19 games, including all three playoff contests.

Bill Belichick repeatedly praised Harris for his professionalism and leadership and seemed to truly enjoy having him around, but it’s unlikely the veteran will play out the second season of his Patriots contract. In addition to his lack of impact on defense, Harris also doesn’t play on special teams, and the team can save more than $2 million in salary cap space by cutting him.

Elsewhere, Roberts continued to be erratic this season, and injuries prevented Hightower from making a significant impact after he signed a four-year, $35.5 million contract to stay with the Patriots. He missed two games with a knee injury suffered in Week 1, then tore his pectoral muscle in Week 7 and was lost for the season.

1. Linebacker clearly is a position the Patriots need to address this offseason. They need to get faster and more athletic, as many teams were able to exploit their shortcomings with running backs in the passing game. Seven backs tallied 50-plus receiving yards against New England this season, with Philadelphia’s Corey Clement going off for 100 yards and a touchdown on four catches in Super Bowl LII.

How New England chooses to construct its defensive end depth chart will affect its linebacking corps, as well. A dearth of experienced pass rushers on the roster this past season forced Hightower — the team’s best all-around linebacker — to line up on the edge early in the season. He’s certainly capable of playing there, but he’s at his best when used primarily as an off-the-line ‘backer.

There are several intriguing linebacker prospects projected to go in the first few rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. The Patriots currently own three of the top 63 selections.

2. Harrison, who will turn 40 in May, is the NFL’s oldest active defensive player, but he’s not considering retirement. The former Pittsburgh Steeler said during the playoffs he hopes to play another one or two seasons, and Christopher Price of Boston Sports Journal reported there’s a “reasonable chance” he re-signs with the Patriots.

Harrison showed during his brief run with the Pats that he still has some gas left in the tank. He struggled against the run in Super Bowl LII but was one of New England’s few effective pass rushers in that game.

The Patriots’ other impending free agent, Flowers, would be worth bringing back at the right price. He played very well down the stretch and was a core special teamer.

3. What will happen with McClellin, who missed the entire season as he recovered from a concussion?

The 28-year-old, who returned to practice in November but suffered a setback before he could rejoin the active roster, has a history of head injuries. He admitted in a Super Bowl week interview with the Idaho Statesman that he’s unsure if he’ll play in 2018.

“I’m just trying to enjoy this season and do what I can to help these guys out,” said McClellin, who played his college ball at Boise State. “I’m not focused on next season. It could be the situation if the doctors say so. It can go a lot of different ways.”

McClellin is set to make $2.15 million in salary next season, plus another $200,000 in the form of a workout bonus.

Patriots offseason preview: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Tight ends | Wide receivers | Offensive line | Defensive line/ends | Cornerbacks | Safeties (Feb. 22)

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