While a secondary led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore made most of the headlines, its linebacker group was no less important in helping the New England Patriots defense lead the league in scoring last year. The top-three in particular stood out: Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins rarely left the field, and showed up on a regular basis both against the run and versus the pass.
Fast forward to this year, however, and the picture looks drastically different.
Van Noy and Collins both left New England in free agency to sign with the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions, respectively, while Hightower decided to opt out of the 2020 season over concerns about the Coronavirus. Losing the three versatile veterans means that the Patriots will have to completely rebuild their linebacker group around the talent that is left on the roster — players such as Ja’Whaun Bentley, Chase Winovich, John Simon and rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.
All five of them are projected to play prominent roles within New England’s new-look front-seven this year and help replace the likes of Hightower and company. While the task will not be an easy one, the linebackers remaining on the Patriots’ roster do feel confident in the unit’s abilities to play competitive football — something that Simon pointed out during a media conference call following Monday’s training camp practice.
“Those guys were a big part of the defense, but we’re a different team this year,” said the veteran who is entering his third season in New England.
“We play with who we have. We have a lot of young guys who are smart, willing to go out there and play hard. It’s our job as vets to make sure that they are ready to go, and it’s their job also to study, be in the playbook and do everything they can to make sure that when their number’s called they’re able to do it. It’s a give and take. We’re working well together, we’ve started communicating well with one another and we just have to keep building that relationship.”
In terms of playing time, Simon was the Patriots’ number four linebacker last year — and the top edge option opposite Van Noy. Given his experience and previous role within the unit, his playing time is expected to increase this year even with the arrivals of Day Two draft picks Uche and Jennings, and the free agency signing of Brandon Copeland.
Simon, however, does not seem worried about who will eventually fill which role on the defense.
“We have a lot of guys on our team who will do whatever the job calls for,” the 29-year-old said. “So, whatever we’re asked to do week-in and week-out, we’re going to prepare for our fullest and try to do our best on Sundays — or Thursdays, Mondays — to execute to the best of our abilities. We have a lot of guys who are very versatile, who can do multiple things, so whatever happens happens.”
This point of view is shared by another player who could very well carve out a bigger role in 2020: second-year outside linebacker Chase Winovich was already impressive during his rookie season last year while being employed as a situational pass rusher, and now appears to be on his way to become a true three-down presence on New England’s defensive edge.
The Michigan product also touched on the personnel turnover during his media session on Monday, but like Simon quickly shifted the focus back on the players who are still around.
“There was obviously a lot of talent in the room last year, just as there is this year. I can’t really control who is here and who is not here. This is the National Football League, guys come and go all the time,” said Winovich. “I know that we have a great room now. There’s a lot of great leadership between Derek Rivers and John Simon and all the guys coming along — couple that with the rookies; they are young, they’re trying to get after it the best they can.
“This is football, a game we all love and signed up for, and we’re just trying to get after it every single day. You can’t control the fact that we have lost some players because, like I said, this is the National Football League: it’s bound to happen. I’m just excited about the future,” Winovich added.
While the eventual composition of the group is yet to be determined beyond the five roster locks mentioned above (Bentley, Winovich, Simon, Uche, Jennings), New England does have plenty of players competing for a finite number of roster spots at the various linebacker roles. Veterans Copeland, Rivers, Shilique Calhoun and Tashawn Bower will try to make a name for themself on the edge, while youngsters Terez Hall, Cassh Maluia and De’Jon Harris are competing for practice reps and spots on the team as off-the-ball options.
The group as a whole may lack big names and impressive track records, but it does have potential and intriguing versatility. And if there is one team that can build a serviceable linebacker group out of those skills, it is the one led by Bill Belichick.