The New England Patriots provided a minor surprise during roster cut downs when they elected to retain 6th round rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts over fellow 6th round rookie linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill. The general belief was that KGH had done enough on special teams to warrant a roster spot, and that Roberts might spend some time on the practice squad.
The Patriots coaching staff had a different plan in mind.
“Elandon was a very productive player in college and I think that instinctiveness carried over into the spring and training camp,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in Monday’s press conference. “He runs well, he's around the ball, he's aggressive, so he's improving. Still, like all rookies, has a ways to go but he is improving and making progress.”
Roberts was well-regarded for his abilities in college and was considered the best run-stopping linebacker in college football. He led the nation with 88 solo tackles, including 19 tackles for loss and 6 sacks, and defended five passes to go with an interception. Unfortunately, the 5’11, 235 pound linebacker was not the prototypical size for the position and was not invited to the combine.
Roberts was one of the rookies that received time with the starters in the third preseason game against the Panthers and the bulk of the final preseason game against the Giants.
The Patriots primarily asked Roberts to align at middle linebacker, with Dont’a Hightower serving as the strongside linebacker and Jamie Collins as the weakside linebacker. He played a small amount of weakside linebacker with Collins in the middle, too.
While Roberts missed a tackle or two in support (ie: he wasn’t the primary coverage) out in the open field, he did a good job of ensuring he was in the proper spot against the run.
And he was willing to show off his physicality, as this block on the nearside was audible over the broadcast.
While starting strongside linebacker Shea McClellin is sidelined with an injury, the Patriots consider Roberts to be on roughly the same footing as veteran Jonathan Freeny. Freeny has extra versatility as he has played all three linebacker positions, but Roberts is the superior option at middle linebacker.
I would expect Roberts to see the field if either McClellin or Hightower suffered an injury (with Hightower sliding to the strongside position if McClellin is out), while Freeny would be the choice if Collins missed time- although the recently acquired Barkevious Mingo could challenge Freeny for that role.
The Patriots clearly appreciate what Roberts can do on defense and the linebacker will develop a place on the special teams coverage unit. The growth of Roberts will certainly be an interesting story to follow this season.