While the New England Patriots are focused on the postseason, the year is over for nearly half the league and that means more outlets will be producing mock drafts. The Patriots are going to select in the bottom of the draft for the billionth year in a row and that means that most mocks are a fool’s errand because so much can happen between now and the 2018 NFL Draft, and on draft day itself.
Still, mock drafts are a fun exercise to learn about prospects that could interest New England and that could be available when the Patriots are projected to pick. And one name keeps popping up as being connected with New England:
Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson.
“Jefferson has excelled at Texas when he relies on his athleticism and coverage ability,” SB Nation’s Dan Kadar writes in his latest mock draft. “In that regard, he could fit a similar role Jamie Collins did in the past for the Patriots.”
Kadar has the Patriots picking 31st as the AFC champion and he believes New England could be trying to find their ultimate replacement for Jamie Collins. Now the Patriots handed out an extension to Kyle Van Noy to fill the linebacker spot next to Dont’a Hightower, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t try to find another linebacker. More on that in a bit.
And Kadar isn’t alone. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has the same idea in his mid-season mock draft.
“The New England Patriots defense has struggled all season, and they should focus on adding athletes throughout the front seven during the upcoming offseason,” Miller wrote at the end of October. “Starting that out with a top-tier athlete in Malik Jefferson would give head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia a matchup nightmare.
“Jefferson has been misused at Texas when he's asked to play a true middle linebacker position. His tools and skillset look more like that of a weak-side linebacker who can drop into coverage, rush the quarterback and make plays in the backfield against the run. Jefferson is at his best at Texas when rushing the quarterback.
“The Patriots haven't replaced Jamie Collins at linebacker since they shipped him to Cleveland at last year's trade deadline. This could be the answer.”
WalterFootball previously mocked Jefferson to the Patriots before the start of the season, so this pick isn’t novel- but when a lot of different writers connect the Patriots to Jefferson, it’s worth looking at the player because he’ll probably have a skill set that aligns with what Bill Belichick wants in a prospect.
So let’s break it down.
Jefferson is 6’2, 240 pounds and fits the prototypical mold of a New England linebacker. He turns 21 years old on November 15th and offers a lot of upside. Jefferson started for the Longhorns during his true freshman season and was named 2015 Freshman All-American and Big 12 Conference Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. He has started all three years in college.
Jefferson has a filled out frame and carries his weight well as a strong tackler. He has 216 career tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 12.0 career sacks, 6 career passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles. He’s an extremely productive player that plays all three of Texas’ linebacker positions.
Despite all of the production and early success, when you look at the tape it seems like Jefferson is still just scratching the surface of his potential, waiting for a coach to unleash his full ability.
While Jefferson doesn’t flash sideline-to-sideline speed and looks to be better fit as a 3-4 inside linebacker in the NFL, he’s an absolute vacuum in the middle of the field and gets every single tackle in the box. He has tremendous instincts for blitz timing, getting into the backfield, and for pursuit angles down the field.
Texas often asks Jefferson to wear every hat in the linebacker room. He covers wide receivers in the slot and running backs out of the backfield, and drops into the deep middle zone; these skills will serve him well as an every-down linebacker in the NFL. He crashes the line of scrimmage against the run to either record the tackle for loss or to push the ballcarrier into the arms of a teammate. He knows when to blitz to hurry the quarterback’s decision making, too.
He’s not perfect, though, and he shows some struggles at disengaging from offensive linemen and can get pushed back into the second level. I’ve also seen a lot of plays where he’s unable to reach the running back at the edge on outside runs. Jefferson also plays like he’s overthinking at times and needs to just trust his instincts (which are usually right).
Jefferson can play all the linebacker spots for the Patriots and would represent a good complement to Hightower and Van Noy and an upgrade over Elandon Roberts. While Hightower is dominant at the line of scrimmage and can play on the edge, Jefferson offers a little more value moving backwards into coverage. And while Van Noy is serviceable in every facet of the linebacker job, Jefferson offers a lot of upside off the ball. It’s always good to get another versatile and skilled player in the locker room.
The Patriots are always happy to take a linebacker in the first round if they believe they can play all three downs and Jefferson certainly fits that mold. It doesn’t matter that Hightower and Van Noy are under long-term contracts, because the Patriots drafted Jamie Collins in 2013 when they had Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower all on the roster; the more the merrier in the linebacker room and we’ve how much an injury at the position can affect the Patriots defense.
New England also selected defensive tackle Malcom Brown out of Texas in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, so the Longhorns are certainly a football program the Patriots have on their radar early in the draft.
Jefferson is regarded as one of the top two linebackers in the draft, along with Georgia’s Roquan Smith, and Jefferson fits Bill Belichick’s linebacker prototype a lot more than the 6’0, 225-pound Smith.
I think the Patriots are going to draft a quarterback with their first round pick to ensure they have the fifth year option for when Tom Brady turns 45 years old. Jefferson could totally still be a fit and the Patriots could use their early-second round pick they received from the San Francisco 49ers to select the linebacker.
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Why are we talking about the draft already?