As we count down the final weeks before the 2022 NFL Draft, NESN.com is spotlighting potential targets for the New England Patriots at several positions of need.
Up next: linebackers.
DAY 1 (ROUND 1)
Devin Lloyd, Utah
6-foot-3, 237 pounds
Widely considered the best linebacker in this year’s class, Lloyd could be long gone by the time the Patriots come on the clock at No. 21. He brings top-tier production and impressive physicality, along with strong intangibles and leadership qualities as a two-year team captain. Pro Football Focus’s 2022 draft guide compared him to San Francisco 49ers do-it-all All-Pro Fred Warner. “If there were an award for the most well-rounded linebacker in this class,” Lloyd’s entry read, “it would go to Lloyd, who graded out well in every possible facet last season.” If available, he’d provide a major boost to a Patriots linebacking corps that needs to get younger, faster and more explosive.
Nakobe Dean, Georgia
5-foot-11, 229 pounds
There might not be a more intriguing potential Patriots target in this entire draft than Dean. Winner of the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, he was a hugely disruptive playmaker for the best defense in college football. He’s the type of game-changer New England sorely lacked at the second level late last season.
But Dean also falls well short of the Patriots’ traditional size requirements for the position. He’s three inches shorter and just nine pounds heavier than Kyle Dugger, a safety. The Patriots’ starting inside ‘backers last season were 260-pound Dont’a Hightower and 255-pound Ja’Whaun Bentley. Drafting Dean would signal a major shift in Bill Belichick’s defensive philosophy.
But after watching how the 2021 Pats struggled to keep up with faster offenses and more mobile quarterbacks, perhaps such a shift is overdue. And Belichick has shown a recent willingness to bring in smaller linebackers — though not quite that small — adding players like Raekwon McMillan (6-2, 242) Cameron McGrone (6-1, 236) and Mack Wilson (6-1, 233) within the last year.
ESPN’s Todd McShay loves Dean’s potential fit in New England, believing he would thrive in Belichick’s system.
DAY 2 (ROUNDS 2-3)
Quay Walker, Georgia
6-foot-4, 241 pounds
Walker was overshadowed by the more highly touted Dean at Georgia, but his skill set more closely aligns with what the Patriots typically look for in their linebackers. He’s significantly larger than the undersized Dean but still would add a much-needed jolt of athleticism to a unit that looked sluggish down the stretch. Walker should have some positional versatility, too. He was only a one-year starter for the Bulldogs but appeared in 52 games over his four seasons.
Chad Muma, Wyoming
6-foot-3, 239 pounds
After waiting his turn behind current Cincinnati Bengal Logan Wilson for two seasons, Muma quickly emerged as a tackling machine for Wyoming, averaging more than 11 per game over his two years as a starter. He’s a well-rounded defender with good athleticism and instincts in run defense and pass coverage, with The Athletic’s Dane Brugler writing that he “doesn?t have any major deficiencies as a prospect.” Muma also was a two-year captain and a Senior Bowl participant — both pluses in the Patriots’ book.
Leo Chenal, Wisconsin
6-foot-3, 250 pounds
Called a “perfect” Patriots fit by NFL Media draft analyst Chad Reuter, Chenal has the heft New England typically covets but also the athleticism it needs. He tested in the 87th percentile or better in the 40-yard dash (91st), 10-yard split (87th), broad jump (94th) and vertical jump (96th) at the combine, then showcased both quickness (6.98-second three-cone, 4.24-second shuttle) and strength (34 bench-press reps) at his pro day. There are questions about Chenal’s coverage ability that could cause him to slide on draft night, but he was one of the highest-graded run defenders PFF has ever evaluated and is coming off an uber-productive junior season, finishing with 115 tackles, 18 1/2 tackles for loss and eight sacks despite missing two games with COVID-19.
Christian Harris, Alabama
6 feet 1/2, 226 pounds
The Patriots love drafting front-seven defenders from Alabama (Christian Barmore, Anfernee Jennings, Hightower), and Harris was an immediate three-year starter for Nick Saban’s squad. He comes with the similar height/weight concerns as Dean, but he can flat-out fly, testing in the 97th percentile in the 40 and the 98th percentile in the broad jump. Like Barmore in 2021, Harris elevated his game in the postseason, notching three sacks and four TFLs in Bama’s national championship loss to Georgia, and as a converted high school defensive back/wide receiver, he should still have room to grow at the linebacker position.
Troy Andersen, Montana State
6-foot-3 1/2, 243 pounds
A fascinating small-school prospect, Andersen was an all-conference quarterback at Montana State before switching full-time to linebacker and becoming the Defensive Player of the Year in the FCS. He also was a three-year team captain, a Senior Bowl participant and a finalist for the Academic Heisman, and he put on a show at his pre-draft workouts, running the fastest 40 of any linebacker at the combine (4.42 seconds) and delivering eye-popping times in the three-cone (6.72 seconds) and short shuttle (3.99 seconds) at his pro day. Inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said the Patriots want to get faster on defense this offseason while continuing to prioritize smart, versatile players. Andersen certainly qualifies.
DAY 3 (ROUNDS 4-7)
Darrian Beavers, Cincinnati
6-foot-4, 243 pounds
Speaking of versatility, Beavers played linebacker, safety and defensive end during his college career, which he split between UConn and Cincy. He’s highly experienced (62 games, 41 starts) and had strong production as a senior, tallying 99 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and five sacks for a Bearcats team that made a surprise run to the College Football Playoff. Beavers ran a sub-7-second three-cone drill, but that agility didn’t always show up on the field. Scouting reports label him as a stiff defender with limited range. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him sneak into Day 2.
Brandon Smith, Penn State
6-foot-3 1/2, 250 pounds
Smith was the No. 1 inside linebacker recruit in the nation in 2019, ranking one spot ahead of Dean. His sloppy technique and poor play recognition prevented him from living up to that lofty billing for the Nittany Lions, but he moves very well for his size (4.52-second 40, 6.94-second three-cone, 4.08-second short shuttle) and could become an NFL contributor with good coaching and some refinement.
Mike Rose, Iowa State
6-foot-4, 245 pounds
Rose started all 49 games he appeared in during his four seasons at Iowa State, totaling 321 tackles and 41 tackles for loss. He also grabbed a team-high five interceptions in 2020, though scouting reports question his coverage chops. Brugler wrote that “Rose looks the part with his size and energy, and his football character, specifically his smarts and competitive motor, is outstanding.” An experienced, productive, high-motor player with “outstanding” football character likely would fit in well in New England.
Micah McFadden, Indiana
6-foot-1, 240 pounds
McFadden was a two-year captain who led the Hoosiers in each of his three seasons as a starter (10, 10 1/2 and 15 1/2). He’s on the shorter side and has what Zierlein called “very average” speed and athleticism, but he’s a smart, physical run defender and productive blitzer (12 1/2 sacks over the last two seasons) with special teams potential.
Damone Clark, LSU
6-foot-3, 240 pounds
A draft-and-stash candidate, Clark was viewed as a likely Day 2 pick before medical tests at the combine revealed he needed spinal fusion surgery — a procedure expected to sideline him for his entire rookie season. Drafting a linebacker with back issues is a risky proposition, but if the Patriots believe Clark can fully recover, he could be worth a late-round investment. He racked up 135 tackles, 15 1/2 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks in 2021 and was lauded for his leadership and physicality.
Darien Butler, Arizona State
5-foot-10, 221 pounds
Butler was a four-year starter (37 starts total) and a rare three-year captain whom NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein called “the heart and soul” of the Sun Devils’ defense. He’s woefully undersized by NFL standards but played well in coverage and has the tackling ability and aggressiveness to become a standout special teamer. He’s one of three Arizona State products the Patriots reportedly met with this week, along with cornerbacks Jack Jones and Chase Lucas.