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Can Patriots LB Elandon Roberts earn a starting job next to Dont’a Hightower?

The Patriots linebackers are a work in progress. Can the rising sophomore find a larger role?

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The New England Patriots selected undersized LB Elandon Roberts in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, giving him the chance to battle a handful of veterans and other rookies for one of the final open roster spots.

Roberts won the job with his tenacity against the run and his willingness to use his body like a homing missile. When the Patriots traded veteran All Pro LB Jamie Collins, Roberts saw a larger role, starting seven games, including two in the playoffs.

It wasn’t a perfect rookie year for Roberts, but there was a lot to like and build upon as Pro Football Focus considered him one of the best rookie linebackers against the run in 2016.

Pro Football Focus rookie linebacker rankings

“Roberts had at least one stop in every game in which he played 20-plus snaps,” PFF writes. “He had a run stop on 8.9 percent of his run snaps, fourth-highest among rookie ILBs with at least 25 percent of their team’s run snaps, and 25th out of 60 eligible ILBs overall.”

Where the 5’11 Roberts came up short was in coverage. After failing to adequately replace Collins in 58 snaps against the Seattle Seahawks, Roberts played just 17 snaps over the next four weeks, before seeing his role start to increase heading into the postseason.

The Patriots love to have LB Dont’a Hightower on the field 100% of the time and with the standard defensive package a 4-2-5, there is only one other linebacker spot available.

Roberts used his electric run defense on early downs before giving way to Kyle Van Noy’s superior pass defense on later downs and whenever the Patriots held a bigger lead.

Van Noy was a midseason acquisition, so there is a fair question about whether Van Noy can develop into the full time player next to Hightower with a full offseason in the Patriots program.

But Roberts remains an intriguing option because of how his devastating run defense can provide a spark for the entire team. If Roberts can develop his coverage ability, he could become an every-down player next to Hightower- and he might be preferred option with Van Noy set to be a free agent after 2017.

At the very least, Roberts put together a solid rookie campaign and can continue to serve as a run stuffer in the heart of the Patriots defense. Roberts has great instincts and football intelligence and could theoretically harness those traits that are on full display against the run and elevate his performance in coverage.