The New England Patriots had one of the most productive linebacker corps in all of football in 2019. Led by defensive team captain/signal caller Dont’a Hightower, the unit was stout against the run, had its moments in coverage, and produced numerous big plays for the top scoring defense in the NFL. It also was productive when it comes to putting pressure on opposing passers: Hightower and Jamie Collins Sr. registered 40.5 and 30 quarterback disruptions, respectively, from their off-the-ball/move positions, with edge linebacker Kyle Van Noy leading the team with 51.5.
Heading into 2020, however, only one member of the group will still play for the Patriots: both Van Noy and Collins left the team via unrestricted free agency, which leaves Hightower as the lone starting linebacker from last season to return. While New England does have some contingency options in the fold — Chase Winovich and John Simon will help replace Van Noy, Brandon Copeland will help replace Collins — adding more depth and long-term upside has to be imperative.
Luckily for the Patriots, this year’s draft features some intriguing options. One of them is Kenneth Murray.
Name: Kenneth Murray
2019 stats: 14 games; 892 snaps; 102 tackles (17.0 tackles for loss; 13 missed tackles); 4.0 sacks; 32 targets, 28 receptions, 1 touchdown
Size: 6024, 241 lbs, 9.5 hand size, 32.75 arm length
Workout numbers: 4.52 40-yard dash, 21 bench press, 38 vertical jump, 1009 broad jump
Expected round: Late 1st/Early 2nd
Strengths: Murray is one of the most impressive athletes the linebacker position has to offer in this year’s draft, and his tape looks the part: he has impressive sideline-to-sideline range from the middle of the defense, moves very well when asked to perform in space, and is capable of running with both backs and tight ends in coverage. He generally diagnoses plays well, especially when coming downhill in the running game, and is quick to burst through gaps when he identifies them.
Murray is a tone-setter for a defense due to his physicality, explosiveness and willingness to lay hits. He also knows how to finish tackles despite a few inconsistencies in this area as well. Given his length and functional moving skills, he is able to challenge offensive linemen when rushing the passer and able to shed blocks or stay active when engaged. He also has experience lining up in numerous spots on the defense, even though the Sooners used him predominately as an off-the-ball linebacker.
In general, his ceiling is a high one with his rare athletic profile arguably his biggest asset.
Weaknesses: Murray is best when playing downhill and has shown some inconsistencies in his zone coverage drops, both in terms of technique and quickness. He also has had some ups and downs in the tackling department: while he is capable of finishing, he sometimes takes too aggressive angles and runs himself out of a good position to make a play on the ball carrier. While his football IQ seems to be high based on some quick diagnosing against play action and screen plays, he oftentimes overcommits too much.
All in all, he has not yet reached his ceiling and will enter the NFL as a developmental prospect — one that might benefit from some time before reaching his potential.
What would be his role? In case the Patriots opt against changing their scheme dramatically in light of their recent linebacker departures, Murray is expected to serve as a move linebacker in the mold of Dont’a Hightower — a player that primarily aligns off the ball filling the Mike (middle) spot, but one that is also capable of moving down to hold the edge on the defensive line as a Sam (strong/tight end-side) or outside linebacker.
How many downs can he play? While Murray’s coverage skills and pass-rushing technique need to be refined, he offers upside as a three-down defender at the next level. Whether or not he will be used that way in Year One remains to be seen, however, and is largely dependent on his ability to adapt to the NFL and a new scheme. Nevertheless, his athletic profile makes him a candidate to see considerable snaps against both the pass and the run early on in his career.
What is his special teams value? New England likes to use its linebackers in the kicking game as well, with Jamie Collins registering 209 snaps in the game’s third phase over the course of the 2019 season — ninth most of the team. While neither Dont’a Hightower nor Kyle Van Noy see that much action on special teams, they still were used occasionally on the punt or field goal/extra point block units. A similar usage would not be plausible from Murray.
Does he have positional versatility? While Oklahoma used him primarily as an off-the-ball linebacker last year — according to Pro Football Focus’ 2020 Draft Guide, 669 of his 829 snaps came in the box — his athletic skillset and range makes him a candidate to move to the defensive edge as well, and play as both a weak-side (Will) or strong-side (Sam) linebacker. Furthermore, he can play in both three- or four-man fronts.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Given that he is somewhat raw as a prospect in terms of play diagnosis and reaction, the more experience he gets the better he should become. Accordingly, it would not be a surprise to see him develop from a rotational option — possibly alongside Brandon Copeland — to an every-down defender between Years One and Two.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? The Patriots’ linebacker corps is somewhat depleted following the departures of Van Noy, Collins and Elandon Roberts. As a result, Murray would have to compete primarily against off-the-ball linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley as well as projected move option Brandon Copeland. His spot on the 53-man roster would be safe given that he at worst should come off the board in round two, but his playing time likely would be dependent on how he fares during the summer compared to Bentley and Copeland.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, the Patriots’ linebacker group suffered some prolific departures in free agency and is in need of some high-upside developmental talent at the position. Murray would offer just that while simultaneously being able to make an impact during his rookie season as a rotational second option alongside Dont’a Hightower. Given his rare athleticism, New England would set itself up with a potent one-two pairing at the position for years to come.
Why not the Patriots? While Van Noy and Collins will play elsewhere in 2020, the Patriots might be willing to wait until one of the later rounds to invest in their linebacker position — especially when it comes to the off-the-ball variety. After all, they already have Brandon Copeland and Ja’Whaun Bentley to serve alongside Dont’a Hightower. The need for a starting-caliber option might therefore be limited, at least compared to the potential investment it would take to bring Murray aboard.
Verdict: The Patriots’ defensive scheme is largely built around the team’s linebackers making impact plays either at the edge or from the second level behind the two-gapping defensive tackles. Having high-upside options in the fold — such as Hightower, Van Noy or Collins — therefore is integral to the success of the operation. Kenneth Murray would offer just that as well: a potential Day One starter who enters the league with an already high floor, he could help fill the void created especially by Collins’ departure. Accordingly, it would not be a surprise if the Patriots made him their choice at the end of the first round or early in the second in case they opt to trade down.