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17 years of Patriots: Analyzing LB trends under Bill Belichick

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Run stoppers, pass defenders, and pass rushers!

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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.

BLITZING LINEBACKER

Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

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

Denver Broncos v New England Patriots

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

Tedy Bruschi returns an interception

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.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Lynn/Getty Images

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.