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Patriots training camp competitions to watch: Depth linebacker

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Who will provide depth behind Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Last year at this time, the New England Patriots’ linebacker group was one of many question marks. Dont’a Hightower was coming off injured reserve, Kyle Van Noy was a serviceable rotational piece but not exactly awe-inspiring, Shea McClellin was no longer part of the equation, and Elandon Roberts had his fair share of ups and downs over his first two years in the NFL. Add a pair of day three draft selections and you get a group tough to project.

Fast forward one year and you find a differently looking situation: Hightower and Van Noy proved themselves indispensable members of the Patriots’ defense through its 2018 championship run, Roberts is coming off the best season of his career, while one of those day three picks — Ja’Whaun Bentley — showed considerable promise before a season-ending injury during his rookie campaign.

Depth and talent extends beyond those four, however, which will make for an intriguing training camp competition this summer.

The competitors

LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB Jamie Collins Sr, LB Elandon Roberts, LB Christian Sam, LB Calvin Munson, LB Terez Hall

With Hightower and Van Noy once again projected as the one-two punch at linebacker, the positions behind them are up for grabs. Ja’Whaun Bentley is a lock to make the team based on his encouraging 2018 season, but his role will ultimately be decided over the summer. Offseason addition Jamie Collins, meanwhile, has pretty good odds to make the team but the Patriots won’t hesitate to move on from him (again) if he fails to perform.

Elandon Roberts, meanwhile, is a wild card: he appears to have a solid case to make the roster as well, but he could also become the odd man out — either through trade or a straight-up release — if Bentley and Collins show more promise and special teams upside. The rest of the group is probably fighting for spots on the 10-man practice squad, even though Sam could be a dark-horse candidate to push one of the more experienced players off the roster.

The deciding factors

Positional versatility: One of the things that make Hightower and Van Noy such productive players in New England’s scheme is their ability to wear multiple hats — from blitzing to coverage to run support to lining up in different spots across the front seven to calling plays. New England also tried Bentley in various roles early in 2018 and the results very mostly solid. It would therefore not be a surprise to see him as the third three-down linebacker on the depth chart when all is said and done.

Long-term upside and cost: While New England head coach Bill Belichick has repeatedly stated that his focus is on the here-and-now, a player’s long-term outlook and upside — especially when adding the contractual context — could become a deciding factor when it comes to building a roster. Roberts, for example, has yet to show that he can be more than ‘just’ a strong early-down run defender or else his upside in the system remains somewhat limited.

Football IQ: Effectively playing linebacker goes beyond accumulating tackles, it also includes being in the right position and reacting properly to what is unfolding in front. Collins, for example, has had some issues in this area during his time in the NFL — his ability to adjust and show some growth when it comes to properly identifying alignments and situations will determine his role in 2019. Bentley and Roberts, meanwhile, need to show consistency in this area as well.

The prediction

With three spots on the roster already taken by Hightower, Van Noy and Bentley, the Patriots appear to have a maximum of two left open at the linebacker position. Considering their experience and proven quality, Collins and Roberts should be expected to earn them. Sam and Hall, in the meantime, are the favorites to make the practice squad — which would give New England strong depth at all levels.

When it comes to the 53-man roster, it would not be surprising if the spots alongside the top duo will be distributed as follows: Bentley, based on last year’s usage and his role during offseason workouts, will be the top option to replace Hightower or Van Noy in the lineup if need be. The second-year man has the skill set to work as a three-down linebacker in the Patriots’ system, but needs to prove that he is physically ready for it.

With Bentley playing the role of rotational three-down piece, Roberts would likely see most of his time on early downs and in short-yardage situations — which would play to his strengths as a run-stuffer and strong tackler. Could the team decide to move on and use his roster spot elsewhere? It is possible, but with Bentley having yet to play a full NFL season he should at least be expected to make the opening day 53.

Collins, meanwhile, might be best suited to play the role of ‘passing down specialist:’ New England could try to take advantage of his burst and positional versatility to use him as a pass rusher from various spots, or to have him help in coverage against tight ends. Don’t be surprised if a change in role compared to his first stint in New England — from 2013 through the first half of 2016 — could result in a Patrick Chung-like career renaissance.