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2020 NFL free agency: Resetting the Patriots’ linebacker position after the departures of Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins

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

While the New England Patriots re-signed safety Devin McCourty over the weekend, they did have to watch two other core defenders leave the team on the first day of the NFL’s legal tampering period: Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins agreed to new contracts with the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions, respectively. Given that both Van Noy and Collins were starter-level players on the league’s top scoring defense in 2019, the Patriots’ linebacker group will look drastically different moving forward.

New England will add further talent over the course of the offseason and might also change its base defensive alignment again depending on the personnel available (the team did just that last year, when it moved from a 4-3 to more 3-4 looks due to the emergence of Collins). For the time being, however, here is what the team’s linebacker position looks like with both Van Noy and Collins headed elsewhere.

Outside linebackers

The players listed here typically are used in a two-point stance on the end of the line of scrimmage, no matter if there are three, four or five men aligning on the line. They usually play from the four-technique to the outside.

John Simon

Chase Winovich

Derek Rivers

Tashawn Bower

Remaining free agents: Shilique Calhoun (UFA), Keionta Davis (ERFA)

In a 4-3 defense, Simon, Winovich, Rivers and Bower would see most of their snaps at the five-technique edge spot. With the Patriots moving away towards a primarily 3-4-based front last year, however, the four may spend most of their time as more traditional outside linebackers in 2020 — similar to how the team used Van Noy, who played 775 defensive snaps over the course of last season on the line of scrimmage compared to just 100 off it.

Van Noy saw plenty of action as a so-called Sam linebacker on the strong/tight end side of the formation with potential coverage responsibilities as well. Simon and Winovich, meanwhile, played considerable snaps as Will linebackers on the other, weak side of the formation. But no matter where they align — the labels are not exclusive — their roles are somewhat similar: set the edge in the running game, rush the passer, and drop back into coverage from time to time.

New England will therefore move the quartet and any offseason additions/free agency re-signings all over the formation in 2020 in order to properly fill Van Noy’s shoes.

Move linebackers

The players listed here play both as traditional inside/middle linebackers off the line of scrimmage and as outside linebackers on the line. Their usage is dependent on formation, play call and personnel group.

Dont’a Hightower

Terez Hall

In 2019, the Patriots loved to move both Dont’a Hightower, the team’s primary defensive on-field play caller, and Jamie Collins around the formation to create the best possible matchups for them: they were used off the line of scrimmage as inside/middle linebackers and alongside Van Noy and company on the edge as well. This usage put both players in a position to perform at a high level throughout the 2019 season while simultaneously keeping offenses on their heels in both the passing and the running game.

With Collins now gone, however, the Patriots have only Hightower and unproven second-year man Terez Hall remaining at the position. Finding a new Jamie Collins is obviously a tall task, but New England could try to look at the draft for potential replacement options that might make an impact on the defense right away — especially considering that the pure edge position is relatively well set with Winovich and Simon a solid foundation to build upon. Wisconsin’s Zack Baun might be the best fit if the Patriots want to go that route.

Inside linebackers

The players listed here spend most of their time off the line of scrimmage as inside/middle linebackers in the Patriots’ usual 3-4, 3-3, 4-3, 4-2, and 5-1 looks.

Ja’Whaun Bentley

Remaining free agents: Elandon Roberts (UFA)

With the Patriots using a lot of Hightower and Collins at the inside linebacker positions as well in 2019, Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley saw only limited action: they served primarily as rotational depth options. This usage was more reflective of the two men ahead of them on the depth chart and how they performed throughout the year, however, than it was of the two youngsters and their development within the system.

Now, of course, one of those two — Roberts — is headed for unrestricted free agency himself. For the time being, Bentley therefore remains the only traditional inside linebacker New England has under contract right now. That being said, the team retaining Roberts for depth and leadership purposes would not be a surprise unless his market develops more strongly than initially anticipated.