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Resetting the Patriots’ linebacker group after Dont’a Hightower’s opt-out

Related: Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Bolden join list of Patriots to opt out of 2020 NFL season

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ linebacker group was among the deepest and most talented in football last year: led by Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, the position was at the heart of the top scoring defense in football. Heading into the 2020 season, however, the situation has drastically changed from the team’s perspective. Not only have Van Noy and Collins left New England as unrestricted free agents, Hightower also will not be back this year after exercising a player opt-out due to Coronavirus concerns.

New England might add further talent over the course of the summer and might also change its base defensive alignment again depending on the personnel available (the team did just that last year, when it moved from a 4-3 to more 3-4 looks due to the emergence of Collins). For the time being, however, here is what the team’s linebacker position looks like with Hightower becoming the latest domino to fall.

Outside linebackers

The players listed here typically are used in a two-point stance on the end of the line of scrimmage, no matter if there are three, four or five men aligning on the line. They usually play from the four-technique to the outside.

John Simon

Chase Winovich

Shilique Calhoun

Derek Rivers

Tashawn Bower

Nick Coe

In a 4-3 defense, the five edge defenders listed here would see most of their snaps at the five-technique edge spot. With the Patriots moving away towards a primarily 3-4-based front last year, however, the six may spend most of their time as more traditional outside linebackers in 2020 — similar to how the team used Van Noy, who played 775 defensive snaps over the course of last season on the line of scrimmage compared to just 100 off it.

Van Noy saw plenty of action as a so-called Sam linebacker on the strong/tight end side of the formation with potential coverage responsibilities as well. Simon and Winovich, meanwhile, played considerable snaps as Will linebackers on the other, weak side of the formation. But no matter where they align — the labels are not exclusive — their roles are somewhat similar: set the edge in the running game, rush the passer, and drop back into coverage from time to time.

New England will therefore move Simon, Winovich and whoever joins them on the team from the group above all over the formation in 2020.

Move linebackers

The players listed here play both as traditional inside/middle linebackers off the line of scrimmage and as outside linebackers on the line. Their usage is dependent on formation, play call and personnel group.

Josh Uche

Anfernee Jennings

Brandon Copeland

Terez Hall

The Patriots loved to move Dont’a Hightower, the team’s primary defensive on-field play caller, and Jamie Collins around the formation to create the best possible matchups for them: they were used off the line of scrimmage as inside/middle linebackers and alongside Van Noy and company on the edge as well. This usage put both players in a position to perform at a high level throughout the 2019 season while simultaneously keeping offenses on their heels in both the passing and the running game.

With both men gone now, however, the Patriots essentially have to start from scratch and build the move position around the talent they have on the roster. While the group lacks experience in the team’s system — second-year man Terez Hall is the only player who arrived before his offseason — it does offer positional flexibility: the four of them can align all over the defensive front-seven similarly to how Hightower and Collins were used. Rookies Uche and Jennings in particular are intriguing.

What also helps the team is that the pure edge position is relatively well set with Winovich and Simon a solid core to build around.

Inside linebackers

The players listed here spend most of their time off the line of scrimmage as inside/middle linebackers in the Patriots’ usual 3-4, 3-3, 4-3, 4-2, and 5-1 looks.

Ja’Whaun Bentley

Cassh Maluia

De’Jon Harris

The Patriots decided to use a lot of Hightower and Collins at the inside linebacker positions as well in 2019, which led to Ja’Whaun Bentley (and fellow offseason departee Elandon Roberts) seing only limited action: he served primarily as a rotational depth option. This usage was more reflective of the two men ahead of him on the depth chart and how they performed throughout the year, however, than his development within New England’s system.

Accordingly, Bentley should play a prominent role in 2020 with Hightower, Collins and Roberts all gone. While it remains to be seen how it will eventually look like, it would not be a surprise to see him take over play-calling duties and serve as a lead communicator within the suddenly depleted front-seven. Rookies Maluia and Harris, meanwhile, would offer depth alongside the 23-year-old.