While the departure of Tom Brady made the most headlines this week, the New England Patriots are not just facing questions their quarterback position: the team also lost some core contributors elsewhere, with the linebacker spot hit particularly hard. While Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts will play for the Miami Dolphins in 2020, Jamie Collins has decided to take his talents to the Detroit Lions. Now, all three need to be replaced.
New England appears to have multiple options, and used one when it brought Brandon Copeland on board, but not all of them are equally realistic. Let’s therefore break them down in four categories — the in-house options, the free agency options, the trade options, and the draft options — to get a clearer picture on who is available, and who might actually have a chance of succeeding the trio in the Patriots’ defense next year and beyond.
The in-house options
While all three are listed as linebackers, they were used differently by the Patriots in 2019: Van Noy lined up primarily on the defensive edge as an outside linebacker; Collins was used in a hybrid move role both on and off the ball; Roberts worked as a classic inside linebacker. New England does have depth options at all three of their positions on its current roster, even though additional layers would certainly be preferred as a look at the group shows:
Outside linebacker/edge: John Simon, Chase Winovich, Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis, Tashawn Bower
Move linebacker: Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Copeland, Terez Hall
Inside linebacker: Ja’Whaun Benley
As can be seen, the Patriots’ depth at the outside linebacker/edge positions is better than at the other two spots. John Simon and Chase Winovich will likely be the top in-house candidates to fill Van Noy’s shoes, and are certainly capable of performing in more prominent roles. Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Copeland are meanwhile best suited to take over Collins’ old role, with Ja’Whaun Bentley the primary candidate to fill Roberts’.
That being said, the best course of action for the Patriots — as noted above — is likely to add more depth during the offseason. Let’s therefore find out what else is available.
The free agency options
If the Patriots want to go back the open market to add more depth at the linebacker positions after already signing Copeland, they will find that some attractive low-cost options are sill available. That being said, their starter upside appears to be rather limited:
Outside linebacker/edge: Shilique Calhoun, Jadeveon Clowney, Kamalei Correa, Vinny Curry, Clay Matthews, Pernell McPhee, Jabaal Sheard, Noah Spence
Move/inside linebacker: Nigel Bradham, Josh Bynes, Kyle Emanuel, Bryce Hager, Reggie Ragland, Nick Vigil
The move/inside linebacker group lacks upside as a hole, with Nigel Bradham and Josh Bynes possibly the two best available options. Neither would be expected to give the Patriots’ current top-three at the position — Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Copeland and Ja’Whaun Bentley — a run for their money, though, which means that the team would be better off investing elsewhere if it feels more starting-caliber depth still needs to be acquired.
The situation looks a bit different at the edge spot, in part because the Patriots have proven that they do not need true every-down players like Van Noy there in order to succeed: in 2016, for example, they won the Super Bowl with a rotation that prominently featured four players. One of those four — Jabaal Sheard — is available again and could offer depth alongside the currently projected top-two, John Simon and Chase Winovich. Kamalei Correa and Clay Matthews, meanwhile, also appear to be intriguing options projected to be available at a reasonable price.
The trade options
While the trade market offers near-endless possibilities, the most realistic projections can be made based on the Patriots’ own track record. After all, the team has shown that it likes to target players entering the final one or two years of their respective contracts. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some potential targets who are scheduled to hit free agency in either 2021 or 2022 and might become available via trade:
Outside linebacker/edge: Genard Avery (Philadelphia Eagles),Branden Jackson (Seattle Seahawks), Takkarist McKinley (Atlanta Falcons), Uchenna Nwosu (Los Angeles Chargers), Dawuane Smoot (Jacksonville Jaguars)
Move/inside linebacker: Azeez Al-Shaair (San Francisco 49ers), Alex Anzalone (New Orleans Saints), Tyus Bowser (Baltimore Ravens), Jermaine Carter Jr. (Carolina Panthers), Brennan Scarlett (Houston Texans), Eric Wilson (Minnesota Vikings)
The most intriguing players based on their performances in the NFL so far and their possible upside in New England’s system appear to be edge linebackers Genard Avery and Takkarist McKinley: they have shown an ability to rush the passer from the five-technique positions out, and to set the edge in the running game. That said, both are coming off somewhat disappointing seasons in Philadelphia and Atlanta, respectively, and might be moved off their teams for the right compensation.
The Patriots, of course, have plenty of capital in this year’s draft at their disposal even though they currently lack a second-round selection: New England holds four selections within the top-100, and 12 in total. The club using its mid/later-round selections to get additional linebacker depth on board is not an unrealistic scenario.
The draft options
Despite all of the other options to bolster the linebacker group, the best and most financially reasonable course of action for the Patriots to add depth to the equation appears to be the draft. As noted above, the team has some flexibility due to its high number of draft picks and using at least one of them could be in the cards for the club.
Outside linebacker/edge: Bradlee Anae (Utah), A.J. Epenesa (Iowa), Yetur Gross-Matos (Penn State), Anfernee Jennings (Alabama), Terrell Lewis (Alabama), Julian Okwara (Notre Dame), Joshua Uche (Michigan)
Move/inside linebacker: Zack Baun (Wisconsin), K’Lavon Chaisson (LSU), Akeem Davis-Gaither (Appalachian State), Malik Harrison (Ohio State), Kenneth Murray (Oklahoma), Patrick Queen (LSU), Justin Strnad (Wake Forest), Evan Weaver (California)
This year’s draft offers plenty of depth and talent in the front seven, with the edge and move positions especially deep. If the Patriots want to invest on Day One, players such as Wisconsin’s Zack Baun, LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson, and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa appear to be potential options. In case New England want to address the off-the-ball/inside position, however, LSU’s Patrick Queen or Kenneth Murray out of Oklahoma might be on the team’s radar. While the top of the draft offers some attractive prospects, the depth this year is sufficient beyond the first round.
All in all, it would not be surprising to see the Patriots turn to the draft to bolster their linebacker depth around Dont’a Hightower and company.