The New England Patriots received considerable contributions from the linebacker position in 2019, but the group might look a lot different next year: while Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley are both under contract for 2020, starting options Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr. as well as situational linebacker Elandon Roberts are all free agents and therefore no locks to return. As a result, the Patriots might have to invest in the position this offseason either through free agency or the draft.
If they want to go the latter route, Illinois’ Dele Harding might be on their radar. While not generating any early-round buzz at the moment, the 21-year-old is coming off a productive season with the Illini: a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media, he ranked second in the nation in tackles per game (12.3) and registered three forced fumbles as well as one recovery and three interceptions. Harding was his team’s most productive linebacker.
Let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Dele Harding
2019 stats: 153 tackles (14.5 for loss), 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 3 interceptions, 2 interception-return touchdowns
Size: 6004, 232 lbs, 31 3/8 arm length, 9 hand size, 75 wing span
Opening day age: 22
Expected round: 5th-6th
Strengths: As evidenced by his stats, Harding has a nose for the football. Be it tackles or impact plays, he always seems to be around the action and in a position to make a play. He also showcases good read-and-react skills which allows him to recognize blocking schemes and play designs fairly quickly. Furthermore, he is active with his hands when going up against blockers and shows a good tackling technique when wrapping-up ball carriers either downhill or in space.
Harding also is capable of bringing the hammer: he is a physical defender that is not afraid to make a hit, while his upper body strength allows him to challenge opponents on a down-to-down basis. He also has experience playing numerous roles at Illinois, from special teams to run defender to coverage linebacker — dropping back comes natural to him.
Weaknesses: While Harding has some intriguing tools and outstanding production, he is more polished against the run than the pass at the moment: he lacks ideal fluidity in his hips while dropping into coverage and is not the quickest sideline-to-sideline player when it comes to guarding underneath zones or rushing the passer from the edge. This, in turn, might limit his production and role at the next level, especially in an NFL looking for consistent performance in the passing game.
Harding also is undersized compared to prototypical linebackers: measured at 6-foot-0 at the East-West Shrine Game, he is among the smaller players at his position. While this has not limited his impact at the collegiate level, teams might be hesitant to invest a high draft selection in him given his lack of size. How he fares against NFL-level blockers on a down-to-down basis will be a question that has yet to be answered.
What would be his role? Based on his college usage and athletic profile, Harding would primarily be used as an early-down defender — think about the similarly sized Elandon Roberts — and special teamer upon entering the NFL. He has the quick instincts to find success against the run, while also bringing experience and proven production as a pass defender to the table if need be.
How many downs can he play? Early on, likely three: New England would probably use him on first and second down and in short-yardage situations when on defense, and maybe also on punt and kickoff coverage units.
What is his special teams value? Harding seems like a plug-in-and-play special teamer: he could be used as a protector on punt teams and and an inside defender on kickoffs. While likely not used to rush on field goal or extra point kicks, he might see some action on the punt block units.
Does he have positional versatility? Illinois used him primarily as an off-the-ball inside linebacker, both over the weak and the strong side. He also, as noted above, has considerable experience against both the run and the pass. That being said, he does not (yet) fill the Dont’a Hightower/Kyle Van Noy/Jamie Collins mold of being a defensive chess piece that is consistently moved around the formation to generate favorable matchups.
Will his role change from year one to year two? If the Patriots indeed use Harding more as a run defender early on in his career, his year two goals will be obvious: getting more pass looks and continuing to develop into a true three-down linebacker.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? The Patriots have only three true linebackers under contract for the 2020 season — Hightower, Bentley, Terez Hall — so it is hard to project who would be his primary opposition at this point in time. That being said, Bentley, Hall and/or a potentially re-signed Elandon Roberts would all compete against him in team in terms of practice time and actually making the roster.
Why the Patriots? With three linebackers headed for free agency, New England might need to restock its depth at the position. Harding would fill a familiar role, the one held by Elandon Roberts. If the team captain leaves the Patriots for greener pastures or a bigger role elsewhere, it is not hard to see the team trying to replace his role with a player who offers a similar skillset and developmental upside. Harding’s football IQ and ability to make the most of an increased role in 2019 also make him an enticing prospect.
Why not the Patriots? If the Patriots are able to retain two of the Van Noy/Collins/Roberts free agency group, they might not feel the need to invest a draft pick in a developmental linebacker on day three. And even if only or one or none of the trio returns to Foxborough in 2020, there is a chance that New England would rather invest in the linebacker position early in the draft to get a day-one starter capable of playing all three downs without much of a problem. Harding is probably not that player just yet.
Verdict: Harding has plenty of attributes that make him an attractive target for the Patriots: he has gotten better each year in college, has some solid fundamentals to work on both in terms of technique and athletic skillset, and is a capable of quickly reacting to what is happening in front of him. Free agency and the stock of linebackers on the roster before the draft will likely impact how realistic New England getting him on board really is, but it would not be a surprise to see him end up with the Patriots.