Let's work our way towards the back of the defensive lineup now and talk about the linebackers. In Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Patriots have one of the best 'backer duos in the entire league, and I can't wait to see them on the field and fully healthy. Shea McClellin looks to be a solid contributor as well. Linebacker depth, however, is something I'm a little worried about; after the three guys I just mentioned, it's the likes of Jonathan Freeny, Rufus Johnson, Ramon Humber, and Elandon Roberts slated to step in if one of the starters goes down - which might help explain why Rob Ninkovichg saw some time at LB during minicamp. Who on the roster do you see as the first guy off the bench should one of the starters miss extended time, and are you worried about the dropoff in talent there?
If I went back to March and answered this question, I'd say Shea McClellin without hesitation. He makes the most sense as the #3 linebacker due to his versatility- he, Hightower, and Collins can all play inside, outside, and on the edge, which is truly fantastic. But I don't know if McClellin is the #3 anymore since he lined up with the edge defenders during OTAs. Where do the coaches envision his role? We'll find out!
Jonathan Freeny, last year's #3, has bumped down to #4 and I think that's fine. I still don't understand why the coaching staff pushed for Freeny over Jerod Mayo when Mayo was clearly better. Freeny is a weak run defender who is not comfortable in coverage. I'm not sure where Rob Ninkovich falls in the depth chart and I think he'll ultimately end up back on the edge, but I'm interested in seeing how he performs. My guess is that Freeny is just better than Ninkovich in today's 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
The big question for the future at the position comes with the contracts of Hightower and Collins. Who do you think gets the first extension? Will the Patriots keep both?
For the most part, the Patriots have stuck to the "first come, first serve" philosophy when handing out contract extensions, and because of that I feel like Hightower is next in line; I imagine the Chandler Jones trade was orchestrated with Hightower's contract in mind. And since Hightower's contract expires sooner, it makes sense that their immediate focus is on him.
That said, it would make good financial sense to lock Collins up long-term before he plays himself right out of their price range - he's one of the most athletic human beings on the planet and a complete game changer when healthy. Hopefully the Patriots can lock up Hightower and Collins for the foreseeable future while still figuring out a way to work Malcolm Butler into the long-term plans. Luckily for me, I don't have to worry about that stuff; I just get to watch football and overanalyze everything. To that end...who is your training camp sleeper at LB?
Is it wrong that I’m such a big fan of the Patriots linebacker draft class? I know Kamu Grugier-Hill is undersized, but he was a dominant force in his smaller division and I think his athleticism is really going to show up. If he can add 20 pounds and get to 230, I think he’s going to stun the world. For now, he’ll thrive on special teams.
But my sleeper is Elandon Roberts and I think there’s a non-zero chance that he takes Jonathan Freeny’s roster spot. Roberts is undersized at 6’0, 235 lbs soaking wet and in cleats, but that didn’t stop him in college. He was an incredibly fun linebacker to watch prior to the draft and he always stole the show from his teammate and first round pick William Jackson III.
Roberts was the best blitzer I’ve seen and he had a knack for making plays on every single snap. He registered 19 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries, 2 forced fumbles, 5 passes defended, and an interception this past season. He just seems like a good character that will toil on special teams, with some serious defensive upside.