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Bill Belichick’s collection of versatile pass rusher/linebacker hybrids could save the team a couple roster spots

With versatile players like Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Shea McClellin in the fold, perhaps the Patriots can keep a promising rookie.

The New England Patriots don’t feel the need to add another pass rusher according to head coach Bill Belichick and part of the confidence in the roster could be related to the impressive versatility of the players in the defensive front seven.

The Patriots have been switching to a 5-1-5 base defense over the course of the past couple of years that includes two standard defensive tackles, one edge/tackle hybrid, one edge defender, one edge/linebacker hybrid, one off the ball linebacker, and the appropriate five defensive backs.

This formation allows the Patriots to be stout against the run, while also offering the versatility to rush the passer or drop back into coverage. The edge/linebacker hybrid and SS Patrick Chung serve as pivot points that allow the same personnel to flex from a 5-1 front to a 4-2 and a 4-3.

But the three different type of edge players gives the defense flexibility in their usage, even with Derek Rivers possibly lost for the season with an injury.

Players like Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy, and Adam Butler can all play the edge/tackle hybrid spot.

Flowers, Wise, Ealy, Butler, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis, Shea McClellin, Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Harvey Langi, and Trevor Bates can all play the standard edge defender role in a pinch.

And then Hightower, McClellin, Van Noy, Grissom, Langi, and Bates can all play the edge/linebacker hybrid spot.

So there is no shortage of players that can suit up for the team, even with all of the preseason injuries.

When the Patriots construct their final roster, they can draw from the versatility of their players to create an economical depth chart and possibly open up additional roster spots for the rising stars on the offensive side of the ball.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick spoke to the media on Wednesday about the difference of these edge-type players.

“To be able to play on the end of the line, the guy has to be able to play on the end of the line,” Belichick said. “He has to be able to play on the line of scrimmage against tight ends, against tackles, against outside runs, be an outside pass rusher. If he plays off the line then he doesn’t really do any of those things. It’s off-the-line coverage, it's off-the-line run fits. It's a different position. Some guys can do both, some guys do one better than the other or they play one and not the other. Some guys have done both.”

“I think [pass rushing is] pretty much a different world,” Belichick added about the difference in rushing from the edge or inside off the line. “Yeah, the leverage is different. It's another body inside. The tackles and the ends are usually matched up one-on-one 95 percent of the time. Inside, I mean its backs, centers, guards. I'd say it's a different world in there.”

And the return of LB Dont’a Hightower to practice after a lengthy absence, and his presence with the defensive line, adds to Belichick’s explanation. Hightower certainly falls into the category of players that “have done both,” with regards to playing on- and off-the-line.

“He played both at Alabama,” Belichick said about Hightower. “He's played both for us. I think he could play both, or one or the other, depending on what we were doing, what we were facing and how much was going on. I mean he's a very smart player, a very experienced player at all of those positions. I don’t think that would be an issue. It would depend on what we were doing, where we felt like he would be most productive or where we needed him the most and go from there.”

Hightower is the most likely candidate to serve as the starting hybrid edge/linebacker, playing with Chung as the defensive pivots, sandwiching David Harris or Kyle Van Noy in the middle.

Over the past three years, the Patriots have made an interesting shift in their ideal linebacker and it seems to be directly linked to the desired versatility at the position. Instead of having pure off-the-ball linebackers like Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Chris White, Steve Beauharnais, and Ja’Gared Davis in 2013- in addition to linebackers with edge experience in Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Dane Fletcher- the Patriots had just one pure off-the-ball linebacker in 2016: Elandon Roberts.

Dont’a Hightower has experience on the edge, as does Rob Ninkovich, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Geneo Grissom, and Barkevious Mingo. Belichick and the Patriots love versatility out of their linebackers and want the opposing quarterback to be unsure which three or four of the defensive front six will be generating pressure.

The Patriots usually keep a combined 10 linebackers and edge defenders each year, but I could see the team keeping just eight or nine with the assumption that Lawrence Guy could help out on the interior, and that maybe a player like Adam Butler is worth retaining. This could free up a spot to stash a player like D.J. Foster for another season.

My top eight would be Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Kony Ealy, Dont’a Hightower, David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Harvey Langi, with Elandon Roberts, Geneo Grissom and Jonathan Freeny fighting for a possible ninth spot.

But it’s clear that Belichick has a deep respect for players that can line up both on and off the line of scrimmage and he has built the roster with that versatility in mind.