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Patriots 2021 offseason preview: New England’s linebacker position faces plenty of questions

Related: Patriots offseason preview: New England’s defensive edge a mix of potential and uncertainty

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

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with four teams left standing, the New England Patriots are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: after not qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2008, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the 7-9 squad has a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins.

With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue things at the linebacker position.

Ja’Whaun Bentley

Age: 24

Experience: 3

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Bentley has a salary cap hit of $995,988 in 2021.

2020 review: Following the 2019 season, the Patriots lost four of their five move/off-the-ball linebackers either to free agency or the Coronavirus opt-out clause. The lone player remaining was Ja’Whaun Bentley, who took over a vital role at the heart of New England’s defense — one he was only partially ready to fill. While the third-year man did have some very good moments as the Patriots’ number one linebacker, he also struggled at times.

All in all, Bentley appeared in 13 games — he missed two because of a groin injury and another due to a shoulder issue — and finished as the leader at his position in defensive playing time. He also was voted a team captain for the first time in his career, and saw some time as the defensive on-field signal caller (even though that role later went to Devin McCourty).

2021 preview: Despite his up-and-down first season as a starting linebacker, Bentley should be expected back with the Patriots in 2021 for three reasons: 1.) His relatively cheap contract, 2.) His status as one of New England’s most experienced players, 3.) His role as a young leader on a rebuilding defense. As such, the 24-year-old will likely continue to play an important role within the linebacker group this year.

The question is how that role will looks like. Ideally, the Patriots will find a way to upgrade the talent surrounding Bentley to have him play as a more specialized early-down linebacker to better take advantage of his skillset and mask his weaknesses.

Brandon Copeland

Age: 29

Experience: 8

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: After signing a one-year, $1.1 million contract with the Patriots during the offseason, Copeland did see regular action on special teams and as a rotational move linebacker over the first six games of the season. However, his season came to an end in October: the veteran tore his pectoral muscle against the San Francisco 49ers and had to be placed on season-ending injured reserve.

2021 preview: Copeland is again headed towards the open market this spring, and he is no lock to return to New England for a second season. While there is always a chance he is brought back as a cheap and experienced depth option, it also would not be surprising if the team prefers to invest in some higher-upside players at linebacker.

Terez Hall

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Hall has a salary cap hit of $780,000 in 2021.

2020 review: Entering the 2020 season no a reserve/futures contract, Hall was unable to make the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster and started the season on the practice squad. Two months later and with Ja’Whaun Bentley missing back-to-back games due to injury, however, he was elevated to the game day roster twice before being officially signed to the 53-man squad.

All in all, Hall finished the year having played in eight games as an off-the-ball linebacker. Like the rest of the position group, however, he did have a limited impact and was inconsistent both against the run and the pass.

2021 preview: Hall did show some progress over the course of his second year in the league, and should therefore get another opportunity to carve out a spot on the roster this season. However, any offseason additions as well as the potential return of Dont’a Hightower and development of other young players on the roster could hurt his chances of getting regular looks in training camp.

Dont’a Hightower

Age: 30

Experience: 9

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Hightower has a salary cap hit of $12.45 million in 2021.

2020 review: Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins leaving the Patriots in free agency put additional pressure on Dont’a Hightower to lead a rebuilt linebacker corps into the 2020 season. However, the long-time team captain and three-time Super Bowl winner decided to exercise the Coronavirus opt-out clause in early August — an unsurprising decision considering that his son, Grayson, was born just a short time later.

2021 preview: New England is facing some major questions heading into 2021, and Hightower’s future is among them: Will the soon-to-be 31-year-old continue his career, or will he ride off into the sunset (and, later, Patriots Hall of Fame)? In the first scenario, the veteran will be reinserted into the lineup as the team’s number one linebacker — a player capable of successfully playing both off the ball and on the edge.

If Hightower retires, however, the Patriots will have to replace a cornerstone of their defense either by giving players such as Ja’Whaun Bentley or Anfernee Jennings increased roles or by adding additional linebackers in free agency and the draft. Him stepping away would result in net salary cap savings of $9.95 million, though.

Anfernee Jennings

Age: 23

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2023 season. Jennings has a salary cap hit of $1.04 million in 2021.

2020 review: With the 87th overall selection in the third round of the 2020 draft, the Patriots decided to invest a second straight pick in the linebacker position. After bringing in edge option Josh Uche in Round Two, they added Anfernee Jennings out of Alabama — another versatile player capable of playing both off the ball and on the edge. New England did use him as such during his rookie campaign: Jennings was moved all over the front seven in his 14 in-game appearances.

While the Patriots did trust him in multiple roles, the 23-year-old did have his fair share of rookie growing pains. From setting the edge versus the run, to successfully dropping back into coverage, to attacking up the field as a pass rusher, Jennings needs to get more consistent in all areas of his game.

2021 preview: Given his draft status, Jennings is a lock to be on New England’s roster in 2021 even though it remains to be seen how his role will look like. Whether or not he makes the famous second-year jump, and any potential offseason moves, will decide just how prominent the youngster will be featured in Year Two. Based on his skillset, however, it would not be a surprise to see him be developed into the versatile move role also played by Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins in the past.

Brandon King

Age: 27

Experience: 6

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. King has a salary cap hit of $1.67 million in 2021.

2020 review: After already missing the entire 2019 season because of torn quad, King was also unable to participate in 2020. The veteran special teamer, who stared his career as a nominal safety but is officially listed as a linebacker, was placed on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp and later saw his status changed from “active” to “reserve” — meaning he would miss at least the first six games of the regular season. Instead, however, King missed the entire year.

2021 preview: When healthy, King is one of the most valuable special teamers on the Patriots roster and a veteran leader in the kick coverage game. However, his outlook for 2021 naturally remains muddy after back-to-back years missed due to injury.

Cassh Maluia

Age: 22

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Maluia has a salary cap hit of $780,000 in 2021.

2020 review: New England selected Cassh Maluia on Day Three of, but as opposed to fellow sixth-rounders Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron — both offensive linemen — he had only a limited impact in 2020. Moving between the practice squad and the active roster on a seemingly regular basis, Maluia played nine games while seeing the majority of his action in the kicking game.

2021 preview: While the Patriots will likely give Maluia chances on defense as well, he will again have to leave his mark in the kicking game if he wants to make the roster or practice squad again in 2021. Can he do that? That’s the big question, but his rookie campaign showed that he might be able to find a rotational role if he makes a jump in Year Two.

Michael Pinckney

Age: 22

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season after signing a futures contract with the Patriots.

2020 review: Michael Pinckney did not hear his name called during the draft, after undergoing surgery to repair a torn hip labrum during the pre-draft process. He ultimately did find an NFL team in October, however, when the Patriots added him to their practice squad. Pinckney spent the next eight weeks there but saw his season came to an end when the league suspended him for six games in late November.

2021 preview: Despite the suspension, New England signed Pinckney to a futures contract after the end of the season. Accordingly, the 22-year-old will get a chance to compete for a roster spot this summer even though he appears to face an uphill climb to make the team.