As the Patriots progress through Phase 3 of their offseason program, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s new-look roster.
Next up: linebackers.
A whole lot of them. After lacking quality depth at both inside and outside linebacker last season, the Patriots took major steps to improve both spots this offseason.
On the edge, they brought back Kyle Van Noy after his one-year Miami vacation, spent big on two-time Pro Bowler Matt Judon (four years, $54.5 million) and used a third-round pick on Oklahoma’s Ronnie Perkins, a potential steal at No. 96 overall.
Their external additions at inside ‘backer were less flashy — free agent pickup Raekwon McMillan projects as a depth piece, and fifth-rounder Cameron McGrone might not play this season as he recovers from a torn ACL — but that group should greatly benefit from the expected return of Dont’a Hightower, who opted out of last season.
The Patriots also signed Harvey Langi for a second tour of duty in Foxboro and return a number of young players with potential, including Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Terez Hall.
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Will Hightower be the same player?
Position coach Jerod Mayo openly asked that important question last week. Mayo isn’t concerned about Hightower’s mental readiness (“He’s one of the smartest players that I’ve been around”) but he acknowledged he doesn’t know where his former teammate will be physically after a full year away from the field.
“Hopefully, we get the same Hightower we got in 2019,” Mayo said. “But we’ll see.”
Hightower was a Pro Bowler in 2019, and his opt-out left a crater in the middle of the Patriots’ defense.
With Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts also all leaving in free agency, New England was forced to rely on the relatively untested Ja’Whaun Bentley, out-of-position safety Adrian Phillips and Hall, a practice squad call-up, as their primary off-the-ball linebackers last season. That downgrade, coupled with major defensive line issues and a lack of proven edge players, precipitated the Patriots’ tumble from first in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA in 2019 to 26th in 2020.
Reintegrating the 31-year-old Hightower into this year’s new-look defense should give it a sizable boost, but only if he plays at or near his previous level. He did not participate in either of the team’s first two open spring practices but has taken part in virtual meetings.
Of the eight Patriots players who opted out of last season, two have retired (Patrick Chung, Danny Vitale) and three more have been either cut (Marqise Lee, Najee Toran) or traded (Marcus Cannon).
2. Where will Josh Uche play?
The Patriots primarily used Uche as a situational pass rusher last season, and he used his athleticism to make a number of positive plays late in the campaign. The 2020 second-round draft pick also saw limited action as an off-the-ball linebacker, mostly while Bentley was sidelined.
With Judon and Van Noy projected to start at the two outside linebacker spots, the Patriots could look to deploy Uche at the second level more frequently, lining him up alongside Hightower. Either way, he has the type of versatility Bill Belichick covets in his defenders and should be a factor this season.
Uche was one of the most impressive members of New England’s 2020 rookie class despite missing the first seven games and the Patriots’ season finale with injuries. He’s been on the field in OTAs, sporting a fresh No. 55.
3. Can Winovich find more consistency?
There were times last season when Winovich looked like the Patriots’ best defensive player. There also were times when he remained glued to the sideline while guys like Tashawn Bower and Shilique Calhoun played over him.
Winovich’s odd fluctuations in playing time — like when he played 37 defensive snaps in Week 4, then a total of 40 over the next three games despite being fully healthy — make it difficult to project what his ultimate role will be. Will he ever become an every-week starter who plays on all three downs? That seems unlikely this season with Van Noy and Judon aboard. But Winovich’s pass-rushing prowess (team-high 47 pressures in 2020) should make him a factor in sub packages.
It’s also worth noting Winovich added more coverage responsibilities to his plate last season and even saw some snaps as an off-the-ball linebacker, a position he hadn’t played since high school.
MOST TO PROVE
Plenty of candidates here.
Judon will enter with high expectations after landing the most guaranteed money ($32 million) of any Patriots signee. Winovich still needs to prove to Pats coaches that he can be a reliable three-down player. Uche flashed promise last season but played sparingly. Jennings looked shaky as a third-round rookie. And mentioned the concerns surrounding Hightower in his return.
But we’ll go with Bentley, who had issues filling Hightower’s shoes last season and could face competition from players like Uche, McMillan, Langi and Hall for his place on the depth chart. Phillips also could continue to factor in here after leading the team with 107 tackles a year ago.
SLEEPER TO WATCH
He might be destined for a rookie redshirt, but McGrone is an intriguing player with great speed and quickness. The Michigan product will be fun to watch if he participates in training camp.