The New England Patriots utilized a rotation at linebacker in 2016, which goes against the desires of head coach Bill Belichick. In an ideal Belichick defense, the Patriots would have two linebackers that played 100% of the snaps and one of them would be Dont’a Hightower.
Elandon Roberts is a strong run defender, but struggles in coverage. Kyle Van Noy is a great pass rusher with coverage ability, but he misses a few too many tackles. Shea McClellin and Jonathan Freeny are a fine back-ups to Hightower, but they doesn’t offer the same ability as Hightower.
The Patriots traded away blue chip linebacker Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns for a third round compensatory draft pick and could very well reinvest an early draft pick into a linebacker that can play every down.
NFL Draft Analyst Mike Mayock thinks there are a few options for the Patriots to consider.
“I look at, when I say linebackers, I'm looking at off-the-ball linebackers, like in a 4-3, which is effectively what they're going to be,” Mayock said in his annual draft press conference. “Reuben Foster should be long gone. And then after that, you want a Zach Cunningham from Vanderbilt, a Jarrad Davis from Florida, or Haason Reddick from Temple. I'm very much a Haason Reddick guy, and if he tests well at the combine, I think he's going to come from nowhere to being, at worst, a second-round pick and perhaps a late first-round pick.
“I think the three guys that you have to talk about are Haason Reddick, Zach Cunningham, and Jarrad Davis. All three of them fit the bill of guys that can run. Highly competitive and tough. Now, Cunningham is kind of a high-cut guy, where the other two are just a little bit more low-cut and explosive. But there are three that would have to be in the conversation if you were going to pull the trigger at a linebacker at [the end of the first round].
“So, beyond that there are some guys in the second round. And a couple of those guys could fall into the second round. I mean, Reddick or Jarrad Davis might even be there in the second round. But they're good football players. Alex Anzalone from Florida, the second or third round. Tyus Bowser from Louisville, second or third round.”
Alabama LB Reuben Foster is expected to be a top 10 selection, if not a top 5 pick, so there are just five other off-the-ball linebackers that Mayock would consider in the first two days of the draft.
Reddick has been one of the big risers over the past few months as the former DB-turned EDGE-turned LB tries to follow the Jamie Collins blueprint to NFL stardom. Cunningham has been one of the most productive tacklers in the SEC, but still whiffs more than most would like. Davis has a nose for the ball, but suffers from long list of injuries.
All three players would be amazing additions to the Patriots, but all three come with pretty clear warts.
The other two players have problems on their own. Anzalone and Bowser both have the ideal size and athleticism for the position, but Anzalone suffered from injuries and Bowser was an edge defender in college and would require transition time.
I would add Ohio State’s 20-year-old Raewkon McMillan to the list of prospects due to his NFL-size, good-enough athleticism, and three years of play under head coach Urban Meyer, and I might argue that McMillan would be the best fit for the Patriots, even as a “pretty good” Rob NInkovich-level non-star and contributor.
This is not a good draft for the Patriots to need a stand-up linebacker and there’s an easy argument for the team to pursue a proven veteran like Paul Worrilow or Jelani Jenkins.