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NFL free agency profile: Patriots could turn to De’Vondre Campbell to bolster their linebacker position

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Related: Free agency profile: Even in his 30s Emmanuel Sanders can still be a productive receiver

Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror, the focus is now entirely on 2020. The next important point on the offseason agenda will be free agency, which starts on March 18 and projects to be a big one for the New England Patriots: not only does the team have 19 players whose current contracts will expire — including quarterback Tom Brady — it also will need to use its limited resources to build a foundation for the upcoming season.

Up until the start of free agency, we will therefore take a look at some players who might interest the Patriots. Today, the series continues with linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.

Player profile

Position: Linebacker

Opening day age: 27

Size: 6’4, 230 lbs

Experience: Campbell originally entered the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2016 and quickly carved out a rotational role on a team that went on to reach the Super Bowl. His role and playing time grew in his second year in the system, and the Minnesota product served as one of the Falcons’ core linebackers from 2017 on — with his 2019 campaign being arguably the best of his career.

2019 statistics: 16 games; 9 quarterback pressures (2.0 sacks, 1 hit, 6 hurries); 112 tackles (7 missed tackles); 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery; 69 targets, 58 receptions, 612 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 interceptions

2019 salary cap hit: $2.17 million

Free agency status: Unrestricted

View from Atlanta

We asked Dave Choate from The Falcoholic to share his thoughts on Campbell:

He’s not likely to see the same market as [Austin] Hooper, but Campbell will also be a popular man in free agency if he makes it that far. In his four seasons in Atlanta, Campbell’s started 54 games and has been easily one of the team’s most reliable tacklers. His physicality, athleticism, and prowess against the run make him a very effective early down linebacker, and he’s shown real ability as a pass rusher when the Falcons have asked him to get after the quarterback. Given that he’s young and shouldn’t break the bank, Campbell will have considerable appeal to teams looking for additions at linebacker.

The only real hole in Campbell’s game has been a significant hole for a little while now, though. In coverage, Campbell has struggled to contain opposing tight ends, giving up a 103 passer rating, 799 yards, and 6 touchdowns combined over the past two seasons on 94 total targets. The ability is certainly there for him to improve in that regard, but it’s something you need to be aware of if you’re adding him to your team and asking him to take on coverage duties on a regular basis.

Patriots fit

The Patriots’ linebacker group might be facing a major transformation this offseason as two of three starting options and a valuable depth player are all headed for unrestricted free agency: Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts are no locks to remain in New England in 2020, which makes the position a priority this offseason — one that the team might address not just by re-signing its own players but also via outside options such as Campbell.

While not as versatile as Van Noy and Collins, and also not as impressive an athlete as the two, Campbell brings considerable experience and upside as a starting-caliber linebacker — primarily off the ball as an inside linebacker, but possibly also down on the defensive edge — to the table. He therefore appears to be a natural target for New England in case the team loses one of the two starters, and possibly Roberts as well, to free agency.

While he has had some issues in coverage, Campbell’s productivity against the run and as a blitzer would give the Patriots’ coaching staff a solid foundation to work with. The 26-year-old will obviously not be confused with the likes of Van Noy or Collins, but bringing him on board would therefore still give the team another piece to plug in next to versatile veteran Dont’a Hightower and third-year man Ja’Whaun Bentley.

Verdict

If the Patriots decide to make a run at Campbell, they obviously will have a specific role and usage for him in the context of the entire position group in mind: considering that Van Noy is a realistic candidate to leave for greener pastures, Campbell might be used to help fill his role as an outside linebacker alongside Hightower and possibly Collins as well. This would allow New England to keep him away from unfavorable coverage matchups and put him in a position to play to his strengths as a run-stopper with upside as an occasional pass rusher.

Of course, money talks, but as pointed out above the market for Campbell’s services might develop to the Patriots’ advantage considering the defender’s lack of impact plays in the passing game. New England, meanwhile, could recognize this as a market deficiency and go after him with a specific plan in mind.