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2020 NFL draft scouting report: California linebacker Evan Weaver could help improve the Patriots’ run defense

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Cal at Stanford Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots had one of the most productive linebacker groups in all of football last year, but suffered some major losses during free agency: Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts joined the Miami Dolphins, while Jamie Collins opted to sign with the Detroit Lions. Even though the Patriots did add Brandon Copeland to fill the move role previously held by Collins, it is obvious that the team would benefit from bolstering its depth at the position through this week’s draft.

Luckily for the Patriots, linebacker is one of the deeper positions available this year, which bodes well for the team in case it plans to add more youth to its current personnel. One of the better fits from the New England’s perspective appears to be Evan Weaver out of California: a highly productive off-the-ball linebacker who was voted first-team All-American in 2019, Weaver checks plenty of the boxes the Patriots are looking for at the position.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at him:

Name: Evan Weaver

Position: Linebacker

School: California (senior)

Opening day age: 22

2019 stats: 13 games; 940 snaps; 182 tackles (10.0 tackles for loss; 17 missed tackles); 3 forced fumble; 18.5 quarterback pressures (2.5 sacks, 7 hits, 9 hurries); 3 pass breakups

Size: 6021, 237 lbs, 9.88 hand size, 31.53 arm length

Workout numbers: 4.76 40-yard dash, 7.02 three-cone drill, 4.21 short shuttle, 909 broad jump, 32.0 vertical jump; 15 bench press reps

Expected round: 6th

Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A

Strengths: Weaver has been a highly productive player at Cal, leading the nation in tackles during his 2019 senior season. While tackling statistics do not tell the whole story of a prospect, they are a proper reflection of Weaver’s skillset: he has a nose for the ball, and is very good when it comes to playing downhill from the inside linebacker position he filled in the Golden Bears’ 3-4 defense. He has an impressive tackle radius and is good at finishing, while also bringing the necessary physicality and vision to the table to attack gaps.

Weaver identifies plays very well and quickly and has shown that he can attack with good anticipation, while also being able to take sound angles against the ball carrier. He also has found some success as a blitzer from the second level: while his explosiveness might be nothing to write home about, the 21-year-old has a good feel for when to attack open gaps in the running game and is capable of mirroring well by keeping his shoulders square to the pocket. On top of it all, Weaver also has a motor that never runs dry — he is a physical tone-setter from the linebacker position.

Weaknesses: Weaver enters the NFL as a rather one-dimensional player. While he does have the necessary toughness and downhill diagnosis, he lacks the functional athleticism and sideline-to-sideline range to become a reliable coverage defender at the next level. He reacts slowly when it comes to turning his hips against seam routes, and lacks the mobility to either defend zones laterally or shoot down to disrupt plays in the flat. His hand usage and moderate feel when it comes to turning his head in coverage might be a problem at the next level.

Weaver is not the most fluid mover when asked to operate in space. In general, he looks somewhat stiff on the field and is not the most flexible athlete. This shows up when he is asked to pass rush: he oftentimes fails to get his shoulder squared and gets stood up too easily when attacking the pocket. He also is more of a clean-up defender than a true impact player, and has had only a limited number of successful plays in the backfield or behind the line of scrimmage.

What would be his role? Weaver’s limited athleticism will naturally have an impact on his eventual role in the NFL: he projects to serve primarily as an early-down and short-yardage defender, who is at his best when attacking downhill and taking advantage of his quick processing. This should allow him to earn some defensive snaps, especially against the run, but it would not surprise if he sees more regular action in the kicking game.

How many downs can he play? Realistically, Weaver will not play more than one or two downs on defense on any given drive — any additional usage in passing situations would not fit his skillset and put him and by extension the entire defense at a disadvantage. As noted above, however, he should be able to earn a regular spot on special teams and could contribute as a member of the Patriots’ kick coverage units.

What is his special teams value? Weaver projects to see regular snaps in the kicking game from the very beginning of his NFL career — something that might not be the case at the linebacker position. His solid read-and-react skills bode well for a role on kickoff and punt coverage, while he could also be used as a rusher on field goal or extra point attempts. All in all, the 21-year-old has the tools to develop into a core special teamer.

Does he have positional versatility? While Cal did move him around the formation a bit, he saw the vast majority of his snaps — 816 of 940 (86.8%), according to Pro Football Focus’ 2020 NFL Draft Guide — as an off-the-ball inside linebacker. Based on his skillset, it appears as if a similar role should be in the cards for him as well at the next level. New England does like to use its linebackers in more than just one role, but this should not be expected to be the case with Weaver on a regular basis.

Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Weaver’s football intelligence should help him adapt quickly to the NFL and the Patriots’ system, but it could also lead to him playing a relatively clear-cut role early on in his career with little room for change in Year Two. Ideally, though, he would be able to show some improvement as a pass defender and see some more looks in coverage as well — a development similar to Elandon Roberts’ between 2016 and 2018.

Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? New England’s off-the-ball linebacker depth currently consists of Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Brandon Copeland as the top three options, and former practice squad player Terez Hall as the number four behind them. While Hightower can be seen as a lock to be on the 55-man roster this year, the other three men will fight for roster spots and playing time over the next few months. Weaver would join the competition as a player who would not be guaranteed either.

Why the Patriots? Linebacker might just be the Patriots’ biggest need heading into the draft — not just from a starter-level perspective but also when it comes to depth. Getting Weaver on Day Three would help with the latter while giving the Patriots a stout defender who should help shore up the team’s run defense after an up-and-down 2019 season. Add his high football IQ and quick processing skills, plus his leadership and high motor, and you get a player who fits what New England is looking for.

Why not the Patriots? Weaver can best be described as a throwback linebacker: he’s strong when attacking downhill and physical in the run game. Players like that have limited value in today’s pass-happy NFL, however, and limited upside in those situations can hurt a player’s stock. Weaver will not come off the board until one of the later rounds, for example, but even that might be too rich for New England. After all, the team might be willing to gamble on players with higher upside on Day Three instead of going with a what-you-see-is-what-you-get defender.

Verdict: The linebacker position plays an important role in the Patriots’ defense and works in unison with the two-gapping defensive linemen up front. Having players who can properly read their assignments and attack those gaps with emphasis is therefore immensely important, and Evan Weaver offers just that. His upside and athleticism may be limited, but he could help fill the early-down role previously held by free agency departee Elandon Roberts and also contribute in the kicking game — not bad value for a player who is expected to come off the board on Day Three.