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Offseason preview: Linebacker has been a position of strength for the Patriots in 2019, but how about 2020?

Related: Offseason preview: Patriots’ defensive edge enters 2020 coming off a productive year

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with two teams left standing, the New England Patriots will have to set their sights on the season to come: after being eliminated from the postseason on wild card weekend, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the AFC East champions have a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins on March 18.

With that being said, let’s break down where the team stands at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue with the linebacker position where the Patriots have six players currently (still) under contract.

Ja’Whaun Bentley

Position: Inside linebacker

Age: 23

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Bentley has a salary cap hit of $735,988 in 2020.

2019 review: After missing most of his rookie season due to a bicep injury, Bentley returned to the field in 2020 and served as New England’s third off-the-ball linebacker: the former fifth-round draft pick appeared in all 17 of the team’s games and was on the field for 294 of a possible 1,070 defensive snaps (27.5%). Seeing action as both a downhill defender and in coverage, Bentley had his ups and downs but generally performed well.

2020 preview: Bentley’s role entering 2020 is highly dependent on how the rest of the linebacker position will develop over the next few months: With Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts both scheduled to hit free agency — as well as edge defender Kyle Van Noy — there is a chance that the 23-year-old could enter the new season as the number two player at his position.

Jamie Collins Sr.

Position: Move linebacker

Age: 30

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: When the Patriots re-signed Collins following his release from the Cleveland Browns, expectations were limited. However, he fit in well with the team that originally drafted him in 2013 and immediately carved out a role as a core member of the defense: Collins appeared in all 17 of New England’s games, trailed only Kyle Van Noy in terms of playing time among the front-seven defenders, and became a big-play machine.

All in all, Collins registered seven sacks and 23 additional quarterback pressures. He forced three fumbles, had a recovery and also intercepted three of the passes thrown his way — one of the picks was even returned for a touchdown. While he slowed down a bit over the second half of the season, the 30-year-old looked rejuvenated in his comeback season in New England.

2020 preview: Collins will hit free agency in March and how his market develops will be interesting to watch. While he made numerous big plays for the NFL’s top scoring defense, his disappointing tenure in Cleveland in combination with his age and developmental arc over the 2019 season might lead to teams taking a cautious approach to him. It is therefore not unreasonable to see him return to the Patriots after all.

Terez Hall

Position: Move linebacker

Age: 23

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Hall has a salary cap hit of $510,000 in 2020.

2019 review: The Patriots picked Hall up as an undrafted free agent, but he was stuck near the bottom of the depth chart throughout the offseason. He did see plenty of action in preseason and was moved all over the formation, but still heard his name called on cutdown day. New England, however, brought him back via its practice squad and he spent the rest of his rookie campaign there.

2020 preview: The Patriots signed Hall to a reserve/futures contract after the season and he will therefore have a chance to compete for a roster spot in 2020. As is the case with Ja’Whaun Bentley, the free agency of other linebackers on the roster might have an impact on his future in New England.

Dont’a Hightower

Position: Move linebacker

Age: 29

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Hightower has a salary cap hit of $11.38 million in 2020.

2019 review: Coming off another outstanding Super Bowl performance, Hightower continued his tremendous play in 2019. The team captain appeared in 16 of the Patriots’ games — he missed Week 4 due to a shoulder injury — and played a key role in New England fielding the league’s number one scoring defense: the unit’s on-field signal caller finished the year with 5.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and subsequent touchdown, and was one of the most consistent defenders on the roster.

2020 preview: Hightower will be back with the Patriots in 2020, but there is still one big question surrounding him heading into the offseason: will the team extend the veteran to a) keep him beyond his contract year, and b) lower his salary cap hit? An extension might create up to $5.6 million in additional resources — money New England could certainly use given the team’s long list of players scheduled to hit free agency.

Brandon King

Position: Move linebacker

Age: 26

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. King has a salary cap hit of $1.57 million in 2020.

2019 review: After signing a two-year contract extension with the Patriots during the offseason, King’s 2019 campaign was over before it even really began: he tore his quad in the third preseason game and was subsequently placed on injured reserve.

2020 preview: A core special teamer when healthy, King is expected to return to the field this offseason and bolster a unit that was already among the best in the NFL in 2019. Getting the 26-year-old back is especially important with Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner on their way to free agency. If one or both cannot be retained, King’s role will be considerable in 2020. But even if the two veterans return, he is projected to see his fair share of playing time.

Elandon Roberts

Position: Inside linebacker

Age: 25

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: Voted a team captain for the first time in his career, Roberts had an interesting season in 2019. While he did see rotational snaps as a run-stuffing inside linebacker — he played in all 17 games and was on the field for 219 defensive snaps (of 1,070; 20.5%) — the fourth-year man also was used as a fullback over the second half of the season: with James Develin and Jakob Johnson both on injured reserve, it was Roberts’ turn to serve as a lead blocker in the running game.

The 25-year-old improved steadily and finished the season with 70 offensive snaps, one hand-off (for no gain, however) and a 38-yard receiving touchdown. New England could have done far worse in terms of third-string fullback play. On top of it all, he also saw consistent action on special teams as well — a first for the former sixth-round draft pick.

2020 preview: Roberts was little more than a role player in 2019 and his free agency market could reflect this: unless a team offers him a bigger role on defense, it would therefore not be surprising to see him return to the Patriots on a moderate deal. After all, he has proven his value in all three phases but has not been able to carve out a true every-down role on offense and defense.