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Patriots free agency outlook: New England’s linebacker position faces uncertain future outside of Dont’a Hightower

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Related: Patriots free agency outlook: New England facing some turnover at the defensive edge

New England Patriots vs New York Jets Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

The New England Patriots’ 2019 season came to a premature end when the team was eliminated in the wild card round of the playoffs. In order to return to the top of the NFL mountain, the organization will therefore have to turn the page and build a competitive roster to get back into a position again to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. A big part of building that roster is successfully maneuvering through free agency.

If judged by the list of free agents to be, New England’s front office will be busy over the next few days before the new league year and free agency are officially kicked off on March 18. Also over the next few days, we will take a look at each individual position on the Patriots’ current roster to find out which players are headed for the open market, whether or not they should be expected back, and who might be brought in from the outside.

Today, the series continues with the defensive edge positions.

Current position group

Under contract: Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall, Brandon King

Free agents: Jamie Collins Sr. (UFA), Elandon Roberts (UFA)

Free agency profile: Jamie Collins Sr.

Opening day age: 30

2019 salary cap hit: $3 million

2019 statistics: 17 games; 30 quarterback pressures (7.0 sacks, 9 hits, 14 hurries); 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 11 run stuffs; 69 tackles (16 missed tackles)

Experience: New England invested a second-round draft pick in Collins in 2013, and he immediately became a cornerstone player on the team’s defense. However, the team decided to move on from him in the final year of his contract: he was sent to the Cleveland Browns ahead of the 2016 trade deadline. Collins’ tenure with the Browns started well, but an inconsistent 2018 season in combination with an expensive contract led to the team releasing him last offseason. He eventually returned to the Patriots and back to the form that made him one of the league’s most exciting linebackers.

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

Collins is one of the better linebackers to enter free agency this year, but his market is still hard to project. While he made numerous big plays for the NFL’s top scoring defense in 2019, his disappointing tenure in Cleveland in combination with his age and developmental arc over the last season — he started off as a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate but became more inconsistent as the year went along — might lead to teams taking a cautious approach. It is therefore not unreasonable to see the 30-year-old eventually return to the Patriots, unless the team wants to transform its defense back to incorporating more 4-3 concepts.

Free agency profile: Elandon Roberts

Opening day age: 26

2019 salary cap hit: $475,089

2019 statistics: 17 games; 5 quarterback pressures (1 sack, 1 hit, 4 hurries); 1 run stuff; 29 tackles (2 missed tackles); 1 target, 1 catch, 38 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown; 1 carry, 0 rushing yards

Experience: A sixth-round draft pick in 2016, Roberts quickly carved out a role as a rotational early-down linebacker and was the team’s number three at the position by 2018. The following season, however, his playing time decreased due to the arrival of Collins and the team’s move to more 3-4 looks. However, he was voted a team captain for the first time in his career and also saw the field as a fullback after James Develin and Jakob Johnson both had to be placed on season-ending injured reserve. Roberts improved steadily in his new role, and also saw consistent playing time in the kicking game.

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

Roberts was little more than a role player for the Patriots in 2019, and based on his first four years in the NFL also offers limited upside as a pass defender. His free agency market could therefore reflect this: unless a team offers him a bigger role on defense, it would 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 — and in the locker room — but has not been able to carve out a consistent every-down role on offense and defense.

Outside free agents

Nigel Bradham, Philadelphia Eagles (UFA): Bradham has had his ups and downs during the 2019 season — prompting the Eagles to release him in order to save $4.5 million against the salary cap — and should not be considered an every-down linebacker. However, he brings considerable experience to the table as a cheap off-the-ball defender.

Kyle Emanuel, Los Angeles Chargers (UFA): The former fifth-round draft pick originally announced his retirement last offseason, but is reportedly trying to return to the NFL this year. Emanuel is far from a sure thing after a year away from football, but he built a foundation as a strong run defender over his first four seasons in the league.

Bryce Hager, Los Angeles Rams (UFA): Hager ended the 2019 season on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury and is another player that likely will not command serious resources to be brought aboard. While his upside appears to be limited, he could potentially fill Elandon Roberts’ role as an early-down run defender.

Nick Kwiatkoski, Chicago Bears (UFA): Coming off the best season of his four-year career, Kwiatkowski looked comfortable as a part-time starting linebacker in Chicago. While he does not offer the most upside or an intriguing athletic profile, he has proven himself a solid situational pass rusher and serviceable defender in the running game.

Cory Littleton, Los Angeles Rams (UFA): Littleton is arguably the biggest linebacker to hit free agency this year. One of the better coverage linebackers in the league and and a solid pass rusher, the 26-year-old has both the experience and the athleticism to succeed wherever he ends up. Even though he is not the best run defender, his market should become an active one next week.

Blake Martinez, Green Bay Packers (UFA): Consistency has been the main problem of Martinez’s career so far, and he does also not offer all that much as a blitzer from the second level, but he has all the necessary tools to develop into very good starting linebacker for a team. This is especially true due to his strong play in the running game and his sound fundamentals.

Joe Schobert, Cleveland Browns (UFA): The former teammate of Jamie Collins brings a diverse skillset to the table, and is entering free agency coming off a productive four-year stint in Cleveland. While he has been a bit inconsistent against the run, the 28-year-old has the skillset to serve as an every-down linebacker at a high level.

Verdict

The Patriots’ linebacker position faces an uncertain future outside of Dont’a Hightower. Can Ja’Whaun Bentley effectively fill a three-down role? Will Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts be re-signed? How does the team evaluate this year’s free agency and draft classes? New England’s next few days will be impacted by how the club answers all those questions, and it would not be surprising if those answers ultimately led to a cautious approach to free agency.

After all, players such as Littleton or Schobert will likely be out of the team’s price range while other off-the-ball available linebackers are far from safe bets based on their careers so far. As a result, the Patriots might prefer to turn to the draft to bolster the position even in case both Collins and Roberts are lost via free agency. After all, this year’s rookie class offers some intriguing prospects that would add cheap and young talent to the team’s linebacker corps.