Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month in Indianapolis, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2019, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Next up: the linebackers.
Terez Hall (practice squad)
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Kyle Van Noy
This was a banner year for the “Boogeymen”:
— Hightower (5 1/2 sacks, eight tackles for loss, 13 QB hits, four passes defended, one fumble recovery) was a Pro Bowler for the first time since 2016.
— Van Noy (6 1/2 sacks, seven TFLs, 15 QB hits, three passes defended, three forced fumbles, two recoveries) was the team’s best pass rusher and highest-graded defender by Pro Football Focus, beating out even NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore.
— Collins (seven sacks, 10 TFLs, 10 QB hits, three interceptions, seven passes defended, three forced fumbles, one recovery) was a game-wrecking force in his return to New England, though the bulk of his production came during the first half of the season (just one sack, three TFLs, two QB hits, three PBUs after Week 8).
— Simon (four sacks, three TFLs, seven QB hits, one INT, four passes defended, one forced fumble) again was a quietly effective edge defender.
— Save for punter Jake Bailey, Winovich (5 1/2 sacks, four TFLs, 10 QB hits) was New England’s most productive 2019 draft pick.
— Roberts saw a sharp decrease in defensive playing time but proved to be a valuable offensive contributor, moonlighting as a surprisingly capable fullback following injuries to James Develin and Jakob Johnson.
Bentley wasn’t able to build on the promising start to his 2018 rookie season. Buried on the depth chart behind his more experienced position-mates, the second-year pro played just 27 percent of defensive snaps and was PFF’s third-lowest-graded Patriots linebacker, ahead of only Calhoun and Roberts.
Calhoun made a minimal impact in his first season with New England, registering just 12 total pressures and zero sacks in 208 pass-rush snaps, per PFF.
Rivers, who shifted from defensive end to outside linebacker when the Patriots transitioned to a 3-4 defense, missed the entire season with a knee injury. He’s appeared in just six games since being drafted in the third round in 2017 and will need to fight for a roster spot this summer.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Will Kyle Van Noy re-sign? That seems unlikely at this point. Van Noy has implied he is not interested in taking a hometown discount to remain with the Patriots, and plenty of teams could use the 28-year-old’s versatility and pass-rushing prowess. Don’t be surprised if Brian Flores’ Miami Dolphins, Matt Patricia’s Detroit Lions and Joe Judge’s New York Giants come calling. If Van Noy, who played 81 percent of defensive snaps this season, does leave, expect Winovich to take on a more prominent role in 2020. The high-motor Michigan product primarily played on passing downs and on special teams as a rookie.
2. Will Jamie Collins re-sign? Collins played like a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate through the first two months of this season, revitalizing his career and making the Patriots look clairvoyant for signing him to a low-risk one-year contract last spring. His diminished impact over the final eight games and previous struggles outside of New England might give potential suitors pause, however, and should make the wildly talented 30-year-old easier to retain than Van Noy.
3. Is a Dont’a Hightower extension in the works? The Patriots likely will need to free up additional salary cap space as they look to re-sign quarterback Tom Brady and bolster his collection of wide receivers and tight ends. One way of doing so would be to work out a contract extension for Hightower that lowers the linebacker’s $11.3 million cap hit for 2020. Hightower, who turns 30 next month, is entering the final year of the four-year, $35.5 million deal he signed in 2017.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images