When the New England Patriots defense was leading the NFL in scoring last season, its linebacker group was one of its strongest and most consistent units. The 2020 offseason, however, brought some considerable change to the group: Dont’a Hightower opted out due to Coronavirus concerns, with Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all leaving in free agency. As a result, off-the-ball linebacker depth is a concern for the team now.
Recent injuries at the position have only made the situation worse for the Patriots. After Brandon Copeland was placed on injured reserve due to a torn pectoral, Ja’Whaun Bentley is now also dealing with an injury and will miss at least this week’s game against the New York Jets: Bentley hurt his groin in Week 8, and after being limited in practice all week did not make the trip to participate in the Patriots’ game against their AFC East rivals.
Bentley’s deactivation means that New England has only two true off-the-ball linebackers available against the Jets, and both of them are rookies: second-round draft pick Josh Uche and third-round selection Anfernee Jennings. The two are therefore expected to play prominent roles alongside “star” safety Adrian Phillips on Monday night.
After starting the season as a healthy scratch and later spending time on injured reserve, Uche made his NFL debut last week versus the Buffalo Bills. While he played only 12 defensive snaps — some of which as Bentley’s post-injury replacement — he showed some positive signs as a downhill defender against the pass.
“He played a handful of plays,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said during a media conference call in the aftermath of the game against the Bills. “There were some positive things and, as you would expect, there were some things that he can improve on. But, it was good to have him out there. He’ll keep working hard. He’s a hardworking kid, gives us great effort every day, so we’ll keep working and see where it goes from here.”
While it remains to be seen “where it goes from here,” his role last week indicates that New England might see the Michigan product as the next man up with Bentley out.
Of course, they could also turn to a more experienced player, at least compared to Uche: Anfernee Jennings has 106 defensive snaps on his résumé after appearing in six of the team’s seven games this season.
That said, Jennings’ rookie year so far can best be described as up and down. While he increased his workload up until the Patriots’ Week 7 game against the San Francisco 49ers — he played 53 of 66 as the number two off-the-ball option alongside Bentley — he did not see the field against Buffalo last week. Uche getting an increased look could have played a role in this decision, but so could have some inconsistent play by Jennings the previous week.
Now, however, both he and Uche will likely get a chance to prove themselves given the lack of general depth at their position.
With Bentley out and no other viable off-the-ball linebacker available, the Patriots have no other choice but to give one or all two rookies a prominent role against the Jets. Whether they will be up for it remains to be seen, but the learning process will still be significant regardless of the level of success they may or may not have. At the very least, the Patriots’ coaching staff will get an extended look at two players who could play valuable roles not just further down the line this season but beyond 2020 as well.