At the end of last season, many identified linebacker as the Patriots’ top need moving forward. Jerod Mayo fueled that sentiment during Super Bowl week when he said New England must get faster and more explosive on defense.
And yet, to this point in the offseason, the Patriots only have added one linebacker: speedy, athletic ex-Cleveland Brown Mack Wilson. They did not take a single linebacker in the 2022 NFL Draft, despite players such as Quay Walker, Devin Lloyd and Nakobe Dean being available when the Patriots traded down in the first round.
So, what gives?
It’s clear the Patriots believe in their current linebacker group, including young players who didn’t see the field in 2021 but could have large roles this season. Neither Cameron McGrone nor Ronnie Perkins, both mid-round draft picks last year, saw the field in 2021. The same goes for 2020 third-rounder Anfernee Jennings and Raekwon McMillan, a free-agent signing who impressed in training camp before suffering a torn ACL. Add in Wilson and Josh Uche, who looked like a breakout candidate last summer but surprisingly didn’t play much during the season, and the Patriots have more youth and upside at linebacker than people realize — which is to say nothing of established veteran starters Matthew Judon and Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Director of player personnel Matt Groh made this point — while mentioning McGrone by name — in a mid-draft interview, and Wilson discussed the topic this week while speaking to reporters. During a recent episode of the “Pats from the Past” episode, Mayo added his two cents.
“I think this year, thinking about the guys we have in the room, we have some guys that can rush and cover,” New England’s insider linebackers coach said. “And so, I think we have some guys that Pats nation, they haven’t even heard of probably.”
When the host sarcastically asked, “Who’s Cam McGrone?”, Mayo added: “That’s right. And that, to me, is the exciting part. That is the exciting part — the unknown. And we’re going to go into it as a unit, we’re gonna go into it together. And, I would say, even right now, not having some of those older guys in the room is beneficial for the younger guys because older guys would be bored out of their minds with some of the things we’re talking about. At the same time, it’s forcing young guys to really take that step forward, and really grow and develop without being hindered by any other guy’s experience.”
Mayo’s comments further underscore the notion that the Patriots are confident in the linebackers already on their roster. But they also might carry a deeper meaning.
When Mayo says, “Not having some of those older guys in the room is beneficial for the younger guys,” it’s hard not to think about Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, all of whom are in their 30s and remain free agents. While the door can’t be entirely closed on New England bringing back any of those aging linebackers, it sure sounds as if the Patriots are ready to rip the proverbial Band-Aid and usher in a youth movement.
Of course, we could be reading too much into those comments.
In any event, New England seemingly is hitching its wagons to a group of linebackers who remain unproven in the NFL. It’s a risky move, but one that could pay off while silencing many of their draft critics.