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2017 NFL Draft: Patriots looking for a 3-down linebacker to pair with Dont’a Hightower

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The Patriots don’t need a week 1 starter, so they can try to find a high-upside player late in the draft.

The New England Patriots don’t have many needs heading into the draft. They could use an extra pass rusher in 2017, and have to look at running backs and offensive tackles for 2018 (unless they extend some current players on the roster). And so the Patriots can instead focus on adding high-upside players that might need a year to develop into a starting role.

One position that the Patriots can look to improve is off-the-ball linebacker (LB), where the team could use a three-down player to line up next to LB Dont’a Hightower.

In 2016, the Patriots started the year with Jamie Collins next to Hightower. Collins is a true three-down player with an ability to stop the run, rush the passer, and drop back into coverage. Once the Patriots traded Collins to the Cleveland Browns, there was a hole in the middle of the defense.

Rookie LB Elandon Roberts struggled in coverage. Midseason acquisition LB Kyle Van Noy missed a few too many tackles against the run. Veteran LB Shea McClellin was better suited to back-up Hightower and wasn’t a good complementary player due to his limited coverage ability. The Patriots ended up rotating these players next to Hightower down the stretch and in the playoffs.

While this rotation ultimately didn’t sink the Patriots season, head coach Bill Belichick is a linebackers coach at heart and considers the position vital to the defensive success. He wants players that don’t have to leave the field against certain personnel packages because it prevents opposing offenses from creating mismatches.

And so the Patriots have spent some time heading into the 2017 NFL Draft looking at a bunch of linebackers that could develop into a three-down player.

The Patriots met with Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham, my number two linebacker in the draft and a first round prospect, at his Pro Day. Cunningham is a 6’3, 235 pound two-time First Team All SEC linebacker that can rush the quarterback, stop the run, and drop back into coverage. He has some issues with his tackling, so you can be certain the Patriots are considering how much an improvement Cunningham would be over Van Noy.

New England also met with Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, a top five linebacker and likely top 50 pick, at his Pro Day. McMillan is 6’2, 240 pounds and was effectively a three-year starter at one of the best football schools in the country. There are concerns with McMillan’s ability to drop back into coverage.

Beyond those two players at the top of the draft, the Patriots have been scouting some high-upside linebackers that could be taken in rounds five, six, or seven.

Cincinnati LB Eric Wilson is 6’1, 230 pounds and runs a 4.53s 40 yard dash, has an explosive 10’1 broad jump, and an exceptional 6.96s three cone time. He transferred from Northwestern and he was a two-year starter in 2015 and 2016. He racked up 265 tackles, 3 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss, 4 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles, and 7 fumble recoveries in his three seasons.

South Carolina LB T.J. Hollomon is 6’3, 232 pounds and unlike Wilson, he runs a slow 4.90s 40 yard dash and has an ugly 7.65s three cone time. He was a two-year captain and started 28 games over four seasons and was very productive in the SEC. He plays better than he measures, but those are some bad measurements.

BYU LB Harvey Langi is 6’2, 251 pounds with a 4.66s 40 yard dash and a solid 9’8 broad jump. The Patriots have been linked to Langi multiple times and Langi has played both linebacker and edge rusher. New England likes his versatility and believe he can be a solid every-down linebacker in the NFL.

Wake Forest LB Marquel Lee is 6’3, 240 pounds with a solid 4.78s 40 yard dash and 7.28s three cone time. He was a three-year starter and picked up 291 tackles, 42 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 passes defended. He also plays on special teams and was a two-time captain.

The Patriots could also look at the oft-injured Florida LB Alex Anzalone, the tweener-prospect Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel, the under-sized Ohio LB Blair Brown, or the one-year starter Michigan LB Ben Gedeon in rounds three or four of the draft.

One year after the Patriots selected Elandon Roberts and Kamu Grugier-Hill in the sixth round, don’t be surprised if the Patriots took another chance on a linebacker prospect.