The Patriots have always had a stacked linebacker corps, utilizing flexible and talented players to key their consistently talented and fundamentally sound defense. New England used to love savvy veterans in their backfield. However, in the late 2000s, their corps became significantly younger, utilizing draft picks to churn out all kinds of backers. Patriots’ linebackers tend to line up everywhere within a defensive front except for run stuffers, which line up in the middle more often than not. Rather than categorizing Patriots’ linebackers into traditional WILL, MIKE and SAM positions, I thought it made more sense to separate them into blitzers, run defenders, and pass catchers.
2000 Chris Slade
2001 Mike Vrabel
2002 Mike Vrabel
2003 Mike Vrabel
2004 Mike Vrabel/Rosevelt Colvin
2005 Mike Vrabel/Rosevelt Colvin
2006 Rosevelt Colvin
2007 Mike Vrabel/Adalius Thomas
2008 Mike Vrabel/Adalius Thomas
2009 Adalius Thomas
2010 Jerod Mayo
2011 Rob Ninkovich
2012 Dont’a Hightower
2013 Dane Fletcher
2014 Dont’a Hightower/Jamie Collins/Akeem Ayers
2015 Dont’a Hightower/Jamie Collins
2016 Dont’a Hightower/Jamie Collins/Kyle Van Noy
SUMMARY: The Patriots have varied their blitzing packages from the linebacker position over the years. From 2000 to 2008, the Patriots mainly utilized edge pressure to force quarterbacks to step up into the teeth of their defensive front. However, once the Patriots’ athleticism shifted more into the middle of their defense rather than the exterior, they began to run more exotic blitzes up the A-gaps and via stunts. Before he was traded, Jamie Collins asserted himself as the most dominant blitzing force in the NFL. Since he left, Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy have split the role with a little help from Shea McClellin, mainly rushing with delayed gap blitzes and stunts. Hightower’s huge sack in the Super Bowl came from the edge, and perhaps losing Collins will force the Patriots to come up with more diverse, creative pressure packages in 2017.
RUN STUFFING LINEBACKER
2000 Ted Johnson
2001 Ted Johnson/Bryan Cox
2002 Ted Johnson/Roman Phifer
2003 Roman Phifer
2004 Roman Phifer
2005 Chad Brown/Monty Beisel
2006 Junior Seau
2007 Junior Seau
2008 Jerod Mayo
2009 Jerod Mayo
2010 Jerod Mayo/Brandon Spikes
2011 Brandon Spikes/Jerod Mayo
2012 Brandon Spikes
2013 Brandon Spikes
2014 Dont’a Hightower
2015 Dont’a Hightower/Jamie Collins
2016 Dont’a Hightower/Jamie Collins/Shea McClellin
SUMMARY: This is yet another role that was shared this past season, with Hightower, Collins, and McClellin rotating as inside linebacker stoppers with a bit of help from rookie Elandon Roberts at times. Roberts is one of the players who made Collins expendable, and he definitely has the burst to be a really good player in 2017. Hightower is back, but Roberts will need to step up next year if he’s going to stick on the team. Also, RIP Brandon Spikes, who was an amazing run stopper for many years. He’s still missed.
PASS COVERAGE LINEBACKER
2000 Tedy Bruschi
2001 Tedy Bruschi
2002 Tedy Bruschi
2003 Tedy Bruschi
2004 Tedy Bruschi
2005 Tedy Bruschi/Mike Vrabel
2006 Tedy Bruschi/Mike Vrabel
2007 Tedy Bruschi/Adalius Thomas
2008 Tedy Bruschi/Gary Guyton
2009 Gary Guyton
2010 Gary Guyton
2011 Jerod Mayo/Gary Guyton/Tracy White
2012 Jerod Mayo/Tracy White/Mike Rivera
2013 Jerod Mayo/Jamie Collins
2014 Jerod Mayo/Jamie Collins/Jonathan Casillas
2015 Jamie Collins
2016 Jamie Collins/Kyle Van Noy
SUMMARY: This has been the biggest bugaboo for the Patriots. Collins had this role down pat this year but then lost it when he freelanced too much. Van Noy filled in admirably, although he is still not quite athletic enough to stay with certain tight ends and running backs. The Patriots could definitely afford to upgrade this position over the offseason - and hopefully they choose to draft or sign someone. Otherwise, they’d end up with a Gary Guyton in 2009-2010 situation, which if you have any memories of that year, ended badly.
PROSPECT FITS: Since the Patriots were able to keep Hightower, a pass-defender should be prioritized, and someone like Zach Cunningham from Vanderbilt could be a great fit. Cunningham is smart, rangy, and profiles very similarly to top coverage linebackers like KJ Wright and Christian Kirksey. Temple’s Haason Reddick is more of a projection, but he ran a 4.52 at the Combine and has defensive back and pass rushing experience. Reddick came to Temple as a walk-on but rose to every challenge, and he has the off-field cleanliness that Belichick expects from his prospects. These players may not be available for New England, now, since they traded out of Round 1.
Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel is someone I’ve earmarked as a Tedy Bruschi analogue, as he has a lot of coverage experience and could play outside or inside linebacker. A late round sleeper is BYU’s Harvey Langi, who has positional versatility and fits New England’s athletic profile. DJ May is a safety/linebacker hybrid who can return kicks, and the Patriots love that versatility for sure - maybe he is someone they take a chance on.
If the Patriots decide to look at pass rushers, Tyus Bowser from Houston and TJ Watt of Wisconsin both have great tape and destroyed the Combine. Bowser is stronger in pass coverage and Watt is better vs the run, but each should be available at pick 32. A late round sleeper is Joe Mathis of Washington, who has great tape but is injury prone.
While the Patriots like Elandon Roberts a good deal, San Diego State’s Calvin Munson could be a nice sleeper as a late round pick. He has a lot of experience and was consistently one of Pro Football Focus’ top run stopping linebackers over the course of his career as an Aztec. Local Matt Milano from BC also may be a nice Day 3 pick - he tested similarly to Lawrence Timmons and Deion Jones at the Combine and was extremely productive in Chestnut Hill.