As the NFL calendar officially flips to 2022, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2021, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town. Next up: linebackers.
Kyle Van Noy
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
2021 SEASON REVIEW
For much of this season, the Patriots’ linebackers looked like the second coming of the 2019 Boogeymen.
Big-money free agent signee Judon was a disruptive force, needing just 13 games to tie the single-season Bill Belichick-era record for sacks with 12 1/2. Van Noy was a multitalented playmaker in his return to New England, breaking up a career-high 10 passes to go along with five sacks, two forced fumbles and one pick-six. Hightower didn’t post gaudy stats but played his “Trash Man” role with aplomb, using physicality and aggression to blow up opposing blockers and ball-carriers. Another returning Boogeyman, Jamie Collins, was a solid and at-times-spectacular depth piece in his third Patriots stint. Bentley started all but one game and had the best season of his career.
But just as that 2019 team did, this group cracked and faded down the stretch. New England’s pass rush dried up, with its best player — Judon — managing just one quarterback hit and zero sacks over the final five games. Run defense became a major issue. Hightower looked worn down, and the Patriots’ linebacking corps as a whole displayed an alarming lack of speed and athleticism, which later opponents — especially the Buffalo Bills — successfully exploited.
After watching Josh Allen slice up the Patriots in a 47-17 postseason pummeling, New England’s need for an upgrade at linebacker was glaringly obvious.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. How different will this group look in 2022? With Hightower, Bentley and Collins all headed for free agency, the answer could be “very,” especially at inside linebacker. Position coach Jerod Mayo recently said the Patriots’ defense will look to add speed, explosiveness and playmaking ability this offseason, and those all are traits their inside ‘backers lacked in 2021.
Judon and Van Noy should be back — with New England needing the former to regain his September-November form — but this could be the end of the road for Hightower, who turns 32 next month. The Patriots historically have had success finding linebackers and edge rushers near the top of the NFL draft (Hightower, Mayo, Collins, Chandler Jones), so it would not be surprising to see them target a Hightower replacement in the first or second round next month.
Prospects who could pique their interest in that range include Utah’s Devin Lloyd, Georgia’s Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker, and Wyoming’s Chad Muma.
2. Can the 2021 redshirts contribute? Neither Perkins (third round) nor McGrone (fifth round) played a snap as Patriots rookies, with the former spending the entire season on the 53-man roster and the latter never making it off the PUP list.
Sitting Perkins was a coaches’ decision; most of his DNPs were healthy scratches as he transitioned from defensive end (his position at Oklahoma) to outside linebacker. McGrone’s was injury-related, as he tore his ACL during his final season at Michigan and spent his rookie year working his way back to full strength.
Both will be players to watch this summer, with Perkins flashing potential last preseason and McGrone boasting intriguing athleticism as an off-the-ball ‘backer. The ex-Wolverine is the type of defender the Patriots typically don’t target (he’s undersized for his position at 6-foot-1, 236) but could use in their defense.
3. What do the Patriots have in Uche, Winovich and Jennings? All drafted in the second or third round within the last three years, they were relative afterthoughts this season, with Jennings spending the year on injured reserve and Uche and Winovich unable to earn more than minor situational roles.
This was especially surprising with Uche, who dominated in training camp but then played just 21.8% of defensive snaps during the regular season. Winovich was way down at 10.5%. He hardly played outside of special teams and was a healthy scratch for the playoff game.
The Patriots ask more of their edge rushers than many NFL teams, expecting edge-setting prowess in addition to pure pass-rush capability. Winovich, in particular, has excelled in the latter at points in his NFL career. If the Patriots don’t believe he can become the kind of well-rounded defender they desire, an offseason trade could be a possibility.