The New England Patriots had one of the most productive linebacker groups in all of football last year. Kyle Van Noy, John Simon, Chase Winovich and, to a lesser degree, Shilique Calhoun formed a quality rotation at the edge/on-the-line positions; Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins were moved all over the place to create and regularly exploit favorable matchups; Ja’Whaun Bentley and Elandon Roberts served as rotational inside linebacker options playing exclusively off the ball.
However, the group will have to adapt to some personnel turnover heading into the 2020 season: Van Noy, Collins and Roberts all left in free agency, forcing the Patriots to invest considerable resources over the course of the offseason. The most prominent investments were made in the draft, when the team added versatile Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings to its move position on Day Two. Together with Dont’a Hightower, the two will form the core of the team’s off-the-ball personnel this year.
Behind the three, meanwhile, New England will see some intriguing position battles during this year’s training camp.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB Brandon Copeland, LB Terez Hall, LB Cassh Maluia, LB Kyahva Tezino, LB De’Jon Harris
The Patriots’ off-the-ball group can be divided further into two sub-categories: move and inside linebackers. The first, which also includes roster locks Hightower, Uche and Jennings, consists of free agency acquisition Brandon Copeland and second-year man Terez Hall. The other group, meanwhile, is headed by third-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley as well as three rookies: Cassh Maluia, who was drafted in the sixth round, and undrafted free agents Kvahva Tezino and De’Jon Harris.
The deciding factors
Positional versatility: One of the things that makes Dont’a Hightower such a productive player in New England’s scheme is his ability to wear multiple hats — from blitzing, to coverage, to run support, to lining up in different spots across the front seven, to calling plays, the veteran has done it all. Copeland offers a similar skillset, while New England also tried Bentley in various roles early during his 2018 rookie season. It would not be a surprise to see the two get more three-down linebacker looks alongside Hightower when all is said and done. Players’ abilities to perform on special teams could also work in their favor.
Football IQ: Effectively playing linebacker goes beyond accumulating tackles, it also includes being in the right position and reacting properly to what is unfolding up front. This could turn out to be the biggest challenge for rookies Maluia, Tezino and Harris when it comes to their adaptation process to the pro level: the youngsters have yet to get used to the speed and physicality of the NFL, and will need to do so without the benefit of an actual on-the-field offseason program.
Athletic skills: The off-the-ball linebacker position is a challenging one because it does not only require players to identify what is happening around them, but also to react. Given that their responsibilities range from playing downhill to dropping back into coverage, this means that New England’s linebackers will need to bring a combination of quickness, straight-line speed and strength to the table in order to successfully carry out their assignments.
Long-term upside and cost: While Bill Belichick has repeatedly stated that his focus is on the here-and-now, a player’s long-term outlook and upside — especially when adding the contractual context — could also become a deciding factor when it comes to building a roster. Bentley, for example, has yet to show that he can consistently perform at a high level when trusted with a bigger role after being used in rotational fashion during the 2019 season.
The Patriots carried four off-the-ball linebackers on their 53-man roster last year, with three of the spots already taken in 2020: as noted above, Hightower, Uche and Jennings are locks to make the team. That said, this does not necessarily mean that only one spot remains for the six players listed above — it all depends on how the team views its offseason acquisitions and what roles it has in mind for them within its shape-shifting front seven.
This is where the outside linebacker position manned by John Simon and Chase Winovich could become important again. If the Patriots see Uche as more of a true edge than a move linebacker, for example, it would free up another spot in the off-the-ball group. New England’s decision making process is not as simple as that, but the general idea remains: the team will find a spot for you, if you prove yourself worthy of earning one over the summer.
When we look at the contestants above within this context, we can safely assume that Bentley — the second-longest tenured member of the Patriots’ linebacker corps behind Hightower, and a player who has shown flashes over his first two years in the league — is a lock to make the roster. Others also have realistic shots at making the team, meanwhile: Copeland has the experience, Maluia a skillset reminiscent of Roberts’. Those two should therefore be seen as the favorites if New England opts to carry five or six off-the-ball options this year.