Ready or not, here come the New England Patriots’ rookie linebackers.
The Patriots were forced to retool their linebacker corps after an offseason in which they lost Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts to free agency and Dont’a Hightower to opt-out.
Third-year pro Ja’Whaun Bentley, a first-time defensive captain, is a guaranteed starter in the middle of the Patriots’ defense. Veteran John Simon almost certainly will maintain his starting spot at outside linebacker/defensive end, as well.
After that, it gets conjectural, but rookies Josh Uche, a second-round pick, and Anfernee Jennings, a third-rounder, figure to factor heavily into New England’s defensive alignments as they compete for snaps with veterans Shilique Calhoun and Brandon Copeland and 2019 third-round pick Chase Winovich.
Uche played inside and outside linebacker during his college career at Michigan. Jennings primarily played as an edge defender, but he’s been experimented with in the middle of the defense, as well.
“Those players do have a good degree of flexibility, and they showed that in college, and they’ve shown it here in camp,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “How it actually plays out, obviously, remains to be seen. We’ll have a plan, we’ll have an idea of how we think it would go or the areas that we want to use them, and that may change from week to week and so forth.
“But as it stands right now, we’ll have something, but we’ll have to see how that works itself out. They have a lot of versatility. There are other players on our team that have versatility, too, so when you combine those things together, you just have to figure out what you feel like gives you your best combination from an execution standpoint, but also that kind of gives you some flexibility to handle the things that your opponent does.”
Copeland has experience at inside and outside linebacker. Bentley primarily has been an inside linebacker during his time with the Patriots, while Calhoun, Simon and Winovich are edge defenders.
It might be tough for the Patriots to try to match 1-for-1 swaps for Hightower, Van Noy and Collins.
Van Noy previously split his time between outside and inside linebacker but played 776 snaps on the edge and just 58 in the box off of the line of scrimmage in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. Hightower played 488 snaps inside and 273 at outside linebacker last season. Collins was more of a hybrid option, with 439 snaps off of the ball and 337 on the edge.
Asking rookies to move around so much might be a difficult demand with a truncated offseason with no preseason. But the Patriots like the way Uche and Jennings are coming along. Patriots outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick has seen “a ton of progress” from both players.
“We’ve been in those WebEx meetings with those guys all the way back in the spring and put a lot on their plate mentally back then, just because obviously there was nothing physically that we could do with them,” Steve Belichick said. “But put a lot on their plate, tried to present as many things as we could. …
“Then there’s a little bit of starting at the beginning point once they got back into the building because we were actually able to be hands on with them. So we kind of had to work through that for a couple weeks, and they came along every day, they’ve been improving every day. They’ve got a long way to go, but they’ve been doing great and coming along just fine. I’m really happy with both those guys.”
Steve Belichick described Uche and Jennings as “very different players” but noted both rookies have played inside and outside, dropped back into coverage and rushed the quarterback.
“Everything that we ask our linebackers to do, we’ve tried to put on their plate,” Steve Belichick said. “And we’ll see what they can handle.”
If Uche and Jennings aren’t ready, then the Patriots have backup plans in Copeland, Calhoun and Winovich. The Patriots also could experiment with different alignments.
If the Patriots choose to deploy a three-man front, then Simon and one of Calhoun, Winovich, Uche, Jennings or Copeland would play as 3-4 outside linebackers. If the Patriots align in a four-man front, then Simon likely would play as a defensive end, Bentley would play middle linebacker, Jennings or Copeland could line up at strong-side linebacker and Uche could be used as a weak-side linebacker.
Bentley likely will take on most of Hightower’s former responsibilities. Uche projects similarly to Collins, while Jennings’ best comparison would be Van Noy. But none of those are perfect parallels.
Uche definitely is the Patriots’ most athletic option at the position, though he might lack prototypical size. Uche was listed at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds with the Wolverines and measured 6-foot-1, 245 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 226 pounds on the Patriots’ roster, which is odd, to say the least. He looked bigger on the Patriots’ practice field.
“I mean, I wouldn’t look too much into that,” Steve Belichick said. “Some guys are big but they play a little light. Some guys are light, they play a little bit big.”
Replacing Hightower, Van Noy and Collins will be a tough task for the Patriots. But Uche and Jennings obviously have impressed their coaches this offseason.
The Patriots play the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium. We’ll find out just what the Belichicks have planned for Uche and Jennings in Week 1.
Thumbnail photo via New England Patriots