The New England Patriots’ defensive scheme is largely built around its linebacker corps: the two-gap system run up front is designed to free the second-level and edge players, and to put them in positions to make plays on the ball-carrier or the quarterback. Losing two starting-level front seven players in one offseason — Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins — can therefore be considered a blow to a unit that ranked first in the NFL in scoring just a year ago.
Luckily for the Patriots, this year’s draft offers plenty of depth and talent in the front seven, with the edge and move positions especially deep. One player falling in this category is Wisconsin’s Zack Baun, a player capable of filling numerous roles for New England’s defense from Day One on. Let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Zack Baun
Position: Outside/edge linebacker
School: Wisconsin (redshirt senior)
Opening day age: 23
2019 stats: 14 games; 741 snaps; 75 tackles; 1 interception (1 touchdown); 2 forced fumbles; 52.5 quarterback pressures (12.5 sacks, 12 hits, 28 hurries)
Size: 6023, 238 lbs, 9.63 hand size, 32.75 arm length
Workout numbers: 4.65 40-yard dash, 7.0 three-cone, 4.31 short shuttle, 32.5 vertical jump, 907 broad jump, 24 bench press
Expected round: Late 1st-Early 2nd
Strengths: Baun’s biggest asset might be his versatility: he can serve as an outside linebacker in 3-4-based alignments, and also play as a more traditional defensive end in 4-3 looks — in short, he can be a hybrid move linebacker like the aforementioned Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy used to be in New England. He certainly possesses the athletic profile to succeed in this role, and moves very well both when dropping into coverage and when playing downhill as a pass rusher or run blitzer.
He has the necessary bend and flexibility to succeed when attacking around the edge, and uses his hands well when engaging pass blockers — his array of pass rushing moves and advanced technique will help him when going against NFL-caliber tackles. Baun also has good burst and a solid first step and is therefore capable of quickly hitting his stride both from a two- and a three-point stance. He also has good short-area mobility to counter blocking attempts.
Baun furthermore has shown that he can identify play concepts well. Even though he has had a few ups and downs in this area — inconsistency that might approve with proper coaching — he has shown a high football IQ and can be considered a quick processor. On top of it all, he is a high-motor player that stays active no matter the number of snaps he is asked to play or where he lines up.
Weaknesses: Measured at 6-foot-2, 238 pounds at the scouting combine, Baun may have to add some bulk to develop into a consistent playmaker at the NFL level. His upper-body strength in particular needs some improvement as he oftentimes failed to properly counter when blocked on his initial pass-rushing attacks. His length is somewhat concerning as well and might allow bigger blockers to swallow him upon first contact.
While he has plenty of pass rushing moves, his bull rush has not proven successful and he failed to register even a single quarterback pressure form it in 2019 — another proof that he needs to become stronger in his upper section. Baun also is entering the draft with a little bit of a injury history: he broke his left foot in both 2017 and 2018, even though he should not be seen as an injury-prone player per se.
What would be his role? New England could opt to use Baun in a variety of roles, even early on in his career. Given his college tape and the role he played at Wisconsin, however, it would not be surprising to see him take over Jamie Collins’ old move spot — a hybrid role both on and off the line of scrimmage, that would come with considerable playing time as a run defender, coverage linebacker and occasional pass rusher. Baun would essentially be a jack-of-all-trades, even though there is a chance he also has a more clearly defined role as either a true edge or off-the-ball linebacker.
How many downs can he play? Given his versatile skillset, it would not be surprising if New England opted to use him on all three defensive downs: he would be able to serve as an edge-setter in the running game on early downs, and also provide help against in coverage both in man-to-man and zone concepts. Add potential special teams value and you get a player capable of becoming a four-down impact player.
What is his special teams value? In 2019, the Patriots used both Jamie Collins and Chase Winovich extensively in the kicking game — and a similar usage seems like for Baun as well in case he gets drafted by the team. He would therefore see regular action on field goal and extra point units on both sides of the ball, and also on both punt coverage units. His upside on special teams appears to be a high one, although his eventual usage might be dictated by his defensive playing time.
Does he have positional versatility? Baun is as versatile a linebacker as any in the draft. He has shown that he can succeed both on the edge and as a more traditional off-the-ball linebacker while playing all three areas of the position (stopping the run, rushing the passer, dropping into coverage). While the Badgers used him primarily as an edge defender in the mold of Kyle Van Noy — according to Pro Football Focus’ 2020 NFL Draft Guide, he played 664 snaps on the line between the 5- and 9-technique positions (89.6%) — he can play off the line and in space as well.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Depending on what his eventual role would be, Baun could expand on it between Years One and Two: he might see more action in other areas of the move role or gradually become a more traditional player if the Patriots see fit. All in all, there appear to be plenty of options and room for growth given his skillset and collegiate career.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? While his spot on the roster would be etched in stone due to his early-round draft status, Baun would compete for playing time against the other edge and move linebackers on the roster. Not including Dont’a Hightower, who is a lock to play nearly every down in every game, that means that he would fight against a big group of players: Winovich, John Simon, Brandon Copeland, Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis, Tashawn Bower and Terez Hall are all in the run for snaps and — in case of the latter five players — roster spots.
Why the Patriots? Adding a player like Baun to the equation after the free agency departures of Van Noy and Collins would not just give the Patriots another layer of depth along their defensive edge — one that seems to be tailor-made for the team’s hybrid scheme — but also improve the position’s long-term outlook: he has the upside and athletic profile to develop into a defensive cornerstone alongside fellow edge defender Chase Winovich for years to come.
Why not the Patriots? Leaving aside the fact that the Patriots may have to move around the board in order to position themselves to draft Baun — he is projected to come off the board late on Day One or early on Day Two, or in the gap between New England’s 23rd and 87th overall selections — the team also might decide to invest in another position early on instead of a front seven unit that already appears to have sufficient depth at the top in the form of Dont’a Hightower, Winovich and Simon. Furthermore, the Patriots’ decision makers might see his length and inconsistent technique as red flags.
Verdict: While he may not have a clearly defined role entering the league, Baun seems like a prototypical Patriots defender and perfect fit for the team’s front seven due to his ability to wear multiple hats: he can play the hybrid move role Jamie Collins filled for New England in 2019, or serve as a stout outside linebacker and edge setter in the mold of Van Noy. This versatility in combination with a solid athletic profile makes him a player to watch late in the first or early in the second round.