One year ago, the New England Patriots’ linebacker position was one of many questions. Dont’a Hightower was coming off injured reserve, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts were up-and-down in 2017, and rookies Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam were... well, rookies. Fast forward to today, however, and you will find a group that consists of mostly the same characters, but one that has an entirely different outlook heading into the new season.
Now, linebacker is one of the most intriguing positions on New England’s roster. The 2018 season and especially the introduction of the flexible ‘amoeba’ front late during the year are partially responsible for that: Hightower and Van Noy were terrific down the stretch, Roberts played the best football of his career, and Bentley showed considerable promise before being placed on season-ending injured reserve due to a biceps injury.
All in all, the linebacker group — also in combination with free agency addition Jamie Collins Sr. — has tremendous potential due its intriguing mix of versatility and experience. And this potential is not lost on its members.
“Elite. I think it’s very elite, and I’m excited to let loose and see what we all can do together. I’m really excited for it,” said Kyle Van Noy, who is of the more outspoken members of New England’s defense, earlier this week when asked about his thoughts on the team’s overall depth at the linebacker position. “Some people have knocked us — we’re slow and all that — but I’m excited to come out and play.”
Van Noy, who joined the Patriots via trade midway through the 2016 season, is one of the most important members of the team’s linebacker crops — a player capable of playing multiple roles well, communicating from the heart of the defense, and making big plays on a regular basis. In this sense, he is seemingly tailor-made to serve as the running mate of the position’s elder statesman, Dont’a Hightower.
Hightower himself, who has won three Super Bowls since New England selected him in the first round of the 2012 draft, does not only have a similar skillset as Van Noy, he also shares the same feelings about the linebacker group — but not without pointing out that potential alone does not bring you anywhere in the NFL: “I think we know what kind of tools we’ve got, but if we don’t use them, then what do you really have?”
“We’re talented. We know we have experience or whatever you want to call it, but we’ve got to go out and execute and not get complacent,” added Hightower, who also spoke about the unit’s general progression this summer: “The number one thing to be one of the eleven guys on that field is accountability. We’re all holding each other to that and we can’t ask each other for more than that. We keep that attitude and try to get better each day. You can’t ask for more than that.”
The players’ ability to hold each other accountable is just one of the linebacker position’s strengths, though. The group’s overall versatility is another, as Hightower noted: “I think it just helps us down the road. A lot of offenses try to game plan for guys being in certain spots in situations, and whenever we’re able to mix it up and line up different, or be in a different front, or blitz, or cover, or drop or whatever, nobody really knows where we’re at.”
“As long as we can continue to grow chemistry between ourselves and continue to learn the defense, we know we’ll be alright,” the 29-year-old added before going into the details of how the players themselves feel about being able to play multiple positions. “I think it’s fun. A lot of times guys are just lined up in one particular spot, but one of the things that we do here is you get asked to do one, two, three different things if possible.”
“It definitely makes our defense unique and a lot different. It’s just good to be able to cover back here, drop in zone here, blitz here, coordinate a rush over here. I think everybody kind of enjoys not knowing where you’re going to be,” concluded Hightower. Add all those elements together and you get a linebacker group — and defense as a whole — that will likely continue to shape-shift just like it did quite successfully last year.
While the saying ‘the sky is the limit’ is rather corny, it is not hard to feel excited about the upside and depth the Patriots’ linebacker position as a whole has this year. The players apparently see it the same way.