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Preparing for life with, or without, Dont’a Hightower

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No matter what happens with Hightower, the Patriots’ linebacker unit will need an upgrade.

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

So, you've been waiting with bated breath for definitive news of Dont'a Hightower's return? Join the club.

Regardless of whether or not New England’s two-time Super Bowl champion green-dot-wearer returns to lead the Patriots’ defense in 2017, the linebacker position will still need addressing. The Patriots currently have five off-the-ball linebackers on their 2017 roster: Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Jonathon Freeny, and Trevor Bates.

McClellin's 2016 campaign could adequately be described as forgettable. So forgettable in fact, that he landed on a short list of potential cap casualties last month.

The mid-season acquisition of Van Noy provided depth in the wake of the Jamie Collins trade, but his production didn't exactly turn heads, and questions remain about whether he can be counted on consistently in coverage.

Elandon Roberts’ coverage deficiencies were on display in Super Bowl 51, as the sixth-round rookie run thumper was simply overmatched athletically in space.

Freeny, a special teamer who provided depth behind Hightower and Collins in 2015, went on IR after week five last season. Freeny has a $240,000 roster bonus due Monday 3/13 (today).

Bates, a Colts 2016 seventh-round pick out of the University of Maine, has spent the duration of his time with New England on the practice squad after he was signed following his release late last fall.

As you can see, Dont’a Hightower will need help if he does return to Foxborough. Here are just a couple of options the Patriots could mull over.

Kevin Minter

6' 0" - 240 lbs.

Exp: Entering his 5th year.

Age: Will be 26 at the start of the 2017 regular season.

2016 PFF Grades: 81.0 - 25th

Run: 68.3 - Pass: 81.3 - Rush: 67.7

Taken in the second round of the 2013 draft, Minter has been a stalwart in the middle of Arizona's defense and has started every game for the past two seasons. He hasn't missed a game since his rookie season, where he was active for 13 weeks. According to John Gambadoro of Arizona's Sports 98.7, the former LSU Tiger is not expected to return to the desert in 2017. According to Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com, Minter is scheduled to meet with Indianapolis on Monday:

DeAndre Levy

6' 2" - 235 lbs.

Exp: Entering his 9th year.

Age: Will be 30 at the start of the 2017 regular season.

2016 PFF Grades: 77.3 - Not ranked (not enough snaps).

Run: 74.5 - Pass: 73.1 - Rush: 63.3

A 2015 second-team All-Pro, Levy was released last week by the Lions, the organization that took him in the third round of the 2009 draft out of Wisconsin. Between the 2013-2014 seasons Levy tallied 270 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 7 interceptions and 19 passes defended. He started all 32 of those games.

Upon signing a four-year deal in the offseason of 2015, Levy promptly landed on IR with a knee injury that plagued him up through November of 2016. He finished the season with an upward trend in his snap count, and appears to be as healthy now than at any point since early in the 2015 season.

Levy is a vocal personality and comes with a certain amount of baggage. Some Detroit fans, irritated by his rash of injuries following the signing of his large contract, viewed his public letter in the Detroit Free Press regarding concussions and CTE as sanctimonious.

Regardless, a healthy Levy, who has experienced just a small taste of playoff football in his career, could fall into that familiar veteran-seeking-a-ring category that the Patriots so often capitalize from.

Mychal Kendricks

6' 0" - 240 lbs.

Exp: Entering his 6th year.

Age: Will be 26 at the start of the 2017 regular season.

2016 PFF Grades: 71.3 - Not ranked (not enough snaps).

Run: 74.8 - Pass: 47.7 - Rush: 69.1

With the coaching regime change in Philly last season came a new role for Kendricks as an early-down run-stopper. Fellow linebackers Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham were among the league’s best tandems at the position last year, leaving Kendricks as the odd man out in nickel packages.

The 2012 second-round pick out of California saw all but $500,000 of his $4,850,000 2017 salary guaranteed this past Friday. For weeks there have been various reports of the Eagles’ willingness to trade him, but they have yet to find a suitor.

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