As the calendar flips to June and the (expected) start of Patriots training camp draws closer, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s 90-man roster.
Next up: the linebackers.
POSITION GROUP BREAKDOWN
Roster locks: Dont’a Hightower, Anfernee Jennings, John Simon, Josh Uche, Chase Winovich
Near locks: Ja’Whaun Bentley, Brandon Copeland
On the bubble: Shilique Calhoun, De’Jon Harris, Brandon King, Cassh Maluia, Derek Rivers, Kyahva Tezino
Long shots: Tashawn Bower, Terez Hall
MOST TO PROVE
The arrival and subsequent reemergence of Jamie Collins last season severely limited Bentley’s playing time. Now, with Collins and Elandon Roberts both gone, the 2018 fifth-rounder is projected to start at inside linebacker alongside Hightower, a Pro Bowler last season.
Can Bentley, who played just 27 percent of defensive snaps in 2019 after having his promising rookie year cut short by injury, seize that opportunity? If not, he could lose snaps to players like veteran newcomer Copeland, second-round draft pick Uche, sixth-round pick Maluia or undrafted rookies Harris and Tezino.
Copeland, previously of the New York Jets and Detroit Lions, has played both off the ball and on the edge in his NFL career.
No Patriots undrafted free agent received more guaranteed money than Harris’ $140,000, making the Arkansas product a strong candidate to crack the 53-man roster.
At 6 feet, 234 pounds, Harris essentially is a clone of Roberts, the undersized, hard-hitting ‘backer who left the Patriots to sign with the Miami Dolphins in free agency. Harris tallied 100-plus tackles in each of his final three seasons with the Razorbacks and was a senior captain last year.
The same comparison also applies to the 6-foot, 235-pound Tezino, who, like both Roberts and Harris, excels as a downhill tackler but doesn’t have great sideline-to-sideline speed. Tezino racked up 225 tackles and 25 tackles for loss over the last two seasons and frequently was used as an off-the-ball pass rusher (12 sacks).
BY THE NUMBERS
1,627: The combined number of defensive snaps played by Collins (813) and Kyle Van Noy (814) last season. Only defensive backs Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty played more. Replacing those two versatile linebackers — who also ranked second and first on the team in sacks — will be the top priority for New England’s defense.
7.6 percent: Winovich’s sack/QB hit rate last season, as in he sacked or hit the quarterback on 7.6 percent of his pass-rushing opportunities. Among the 172 NFL defenders with at least 200 pass-rush snaps, that ranked 24th, according to The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia. Winovich ranked tied for fourth among Patriots defenders in sacks (5 1/2) as a rookie.
Two: The total number of tackles Rivers has recorded in his Patriots career. The 2017 third-round pick has missed two full seasons with injuries and sat out most of the other (2018) as a healthy scratch. He’ll have a difficult time keeping his roster spot this summer.
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Which roles will Day 2 draft picks Uche and Jennings play? The former was athletic and versatile enough to play all over Michigan’s defense and was one of the nation’s top pass rushers, but he’s on the smaller side (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) and only has one year of college starting experience. The latter is bigger (6-3, 259) and excelled against the run at Alabama but doesn’t move as well as Uche in the open field.
Jennings (third round, 87th overall) played inside linebacker at the Senior Bowl, but he projects as an edge defender in New England’s 3-4 scheme. He’s already garnered comparisons to Van Noy, Simon and Trey Flowers. Uche (second round, 60th overall) could begin his career as a situational pass rusher — as Winovich, his former Michigan teammate, did last season — but has the potential to become the next Collins or Van Noy, using his versatility to line up in multiple spots.
2. Can Winovich take a Year 2 leap? In a year in which most Patriots draft picks saw little playing time, Winovich carved out a nice role as a sub rusher while also ranking fourth on the team in special teams snaps, behind only Matthew Slater, Brandon Bolden and Nate Ebner. He played just 28.9 percent of New England’s defensive snaps as a rookie but could see that number skyrocket with Van Noy’s starting spot now vacant.
“I almost feel bad for the people that knew me when I was a kid or in high school or even in college,” Winovich said after the season. “I felt like I’ve grown so much this past year in 2019. It’s one of those things I just can’t wait to show the world, and I’m excited for the future moving forward. But we’ve got a lot more work to do.”
3. Is a Hightower extension coming? The Patriots need to clear additional salary cap space for the signings, trades and waiver claims they’ll inevitably make during the regular season. One way to do so would be to extend Hightower, who recently turned 30 and is coming off one of the best seasons of his career. Hightower set to carry a $12.4 million cap hit in the final year of his current deal.