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A potential dark horse to start alongside Dont’a Hightower

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Hint: it isn’t Trevor Bates.

NFL: Preseason-New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

When scouring the Patriots’ roster these days, it’s certainly tough to find a weakness. With the offense already drawing comparisons to the 2007 unit, the focus, as it typically is in New England, is shifted to the defensive side of the football.

With more resources dedicated to an already fantastic secondary this offseason, and the signings of Alan Branch and Lawrence Guy bolstering the defensive line, it seems the popular choice for the most glaring “weakness” among the starters on defense would be at linebacker.

Henry McKenna of USA Today’s Patriots Wire asked Patriots fans on Tuesday, “Who starts for the Patriots at LB beside Dont'a Hightower?” McKenna covers the usual suspects: Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Jonathan Freeny, etc. He also touched on UDFAs Harvey Langi, and Brooks Ellis, while even entertaining the thought of putting the athletic skill set of rookie Derek Rivers to use at a new position.

However, there is an available off-the-ball linebacker who was graded by PFF as the 10th best run stopper in 2016, and who ranked 30th against the pass — ahead of players like Bobby Wagner, Alec Ogletree, Telvin Smith, and Thomas Davis.

That player is Perry Riley Jr.

Riley, currently a free agent, started 11 games in 2016 for the Oakland Raiders after being signed in week 5. He was plugged into the starting role and excelled immediately, logging 48 tackles.

Riley, an LSU product, is entering his 8th season in the league after being drafted in the 4th round of the 2010 NFL Draft by Washington. In 2014, the team signed him to a $13 million extension, but after playing in 9 games in 2015 and needing foot surgery, he was released the following August.

The Patriots have shown interest in bringing in a veteran linebacker after hosting two already this offseason in Andrew Gachkar and Gerald Hodges. Bill Belichick and his staff have already had the opportunity to watch Riley up close in 2014 when the Patriots traveled to Richmond,VA during training camp to participate in joint practices with Washington.

With the Patriots in their base package, the addition of Riley to the downhill run-thumping duo of Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts would create a unit as formidable against the ground game as one could find in the AFC. Riley also still has enough versatility to remain on the field in two-LB packages, and could be swapped out for Chung with the team goes with its “big nickel” look.

From a financial standpoint, the linebacker market has been bone dry, forcing players like Zach Brown to take one year “prove it” deals. Presumably, the cost of the 29-year-old Riley would be economical. In fact, if the Patriots were to cut Shea McClellin after Thursday June 1st, it would free up $1,416,667 in 2017 cap space (assuming the team pays his entire $200,000 workout bonus). It appears as if a Riley-for-McClellin swap could pay for itself.

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