How Patriots Linebacker Reacted To Team’s Surprising NFL Draft Strategy

The Patriots' draft class features no linebackers

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Ten draft picks, eight undrafted free agents and no linebackers? That was an unexpected outcome for the New England Patriots this past weekend.

Off-the-ball linebacker was generally viewed as one of the Patriots’ biggest roster needs entering the 2022 NFL Draft, but Bill Belichick and company opted to ignore the position and direct their resources elsewhere.

One of New England’s current linebackers saw that as a vote of confidence.

“Obviously, the front office and Coach Belichick seem very confident in the guys we have in the room now,” fourth-year pro Mack Wilson, who arrived in a trade from the Cleveland Browns in March, said Tuesday in a video conference. “Obviously, I feel as confident, as well. We have some great guys in there. We’ve just got to continue to build this thing, continue to put everything together.”

Though Wilson has been the Patriots’ only external linebacker addition to date, that position group should look much different this season. Along with returning starter Ja’Whaun Bentley, who re-signed in March, Wilson, Raekwon McMillan and Cameron McGrone all appear poised to play substantial roles in 2022.

McMillan and McGrone both were with the Patriots last season, but torn ACLs prevented either from seeing game action. The former was an early training camp standout before his injury, and the latter is an athletic 2021 fifth-round draft pick who likely would have gone higher had his injury not cut short his final season at Michigan.

Director of player personnel Matt Groh singled out McGrone when asked about the Patriots’ decision to pass on multiple starting-caliber linebackers in the early rounds of this year’s draft.

“(We’re) really excited about that group,” Groh said last Friday night. “Excited to see Cam McGrone was able to get on the field a little bit last year, excited to see him be in an expanded role. He’s kind of an additional draft pick. … That all kind of counts to getting younger, getting faster, being a tough team.

“Being able to add Mack Wilson … I think that was a really important part of adding some depth to the linebacking corps along with being able to get Ja’Whaun Bentley back. Really excited to have him and his experience, as well. I think we’ve got a lot of names there and a lot of experience, and mix in some youth, so I think it’s a good group.”

The Patriots traded outside linebacker Chase Winovich to the Browns to acquire Wilson, a 24-year-old Alabama product who started 14 games as a rookie in 2019 but had seen his playing time plummet over the past two seasons.

Wilson (6-foot-1, 233 pounds), McGrone (6-1, 236) and McMillan (6-2, 242) all are smaller than the Patriots typically prefer their linebackers, signaling a possible shift in defensive strategy. The 6-2, 255-pound Bentley is the only inside ‘backer on the team’s current roster who weighs more than 250 pounds, with Dont’a Hightower (6-3, 260), Jamie Collins (6-3, 255) and Kyle Van Noy (6-3, 250) all remaining unsigned in free agency.

New England also signed hybrid safety/linebacker Jabrill Peppers this offseason, adding to a group that already featured Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips. A lack of speed and explosiveness at the second level burned the Patriots in 2021, especially in late-season losses to the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.

Groh and inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo both have said getting faster on defense was one of the Patriots’ offseason priorities (with Groh noting the same for offense, as well).

“We’re definitely going to look to get faster, look to get more explosive and look to put more playmakers on the field,” Mayo said in a radio interview during Super Bowl week.

While more additions could be forthcoming — free agent signings no longer count toward next year’s compensatory draft pick formula, and any of Hightower, Collins or Van Noy theoretically still could return — Wilson likes the group the Patriots have assembled.

“Obviously, it’s early, so we’ve got time to build everything and see what everybody can do, basically,” he said. “Obviously, everybody has a different kind of skill set, but Coach Mayo will do a great job with putting guys in a position to make plays regardless.”

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