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2021 Patriots draft profile: Penn State’s Micah Parsons could be a foundational player in the New England defense

Related: Patriots draft profile: Jaylen Waddle would give New England a legitimate WR1

NCAA Football: Penn State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots have a lot of holes they need to fix for the long term, perhaps the biggest being in their front seven. They have been particularly vulnerable against the run recently, especially on the edges, and lack the speed at the linebacker position to make tackles outside.

With Ja’Whaun Bentley and Adrian Phillips ticketed for free agency after the 2021 season, and with Dont’a Hightower’s future uncertain as well, the Patriots have a big hole at the off-the-ball position opening up. The team did invest Day Two draft picks in Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings last spring, so they do have potential long-term options to fill those roles when they open up but it remains to be seen if they can actually do that.

The Patriots have a very important draft coming up, having their first top-20 pick in 10 years and cannot afford to screw up the first pick, so I think they should address either their front seven or cornerback position with that top selection. One player who I think profiles well for what the team wants to run on defense is a linebacker from the Penn State program.

Name: Micah Parsons

Position: Off-ball linebacker

School: Penn State

2021 Week 1 Age: 22

2019 Stats: 13 games, 109 tackles (52 solo), 14.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 5 pass deflections

Size: 6’2” 245

Expected Draft Range: Top 15

Strengths: Parsons is built like a downhill linebacker and plays like it too, which projects well in how he will fit in the Patriots defense. He is an explosive athlete with good range to the ball against the run and has the athleticism to run underneath tight ends in coverage. He also provides pass rush ability from the linebacker level, which is something head coach Bill Belichick covets from all his linebackers.

The ability to impact the game as a rusher in addition to being able to drop into coverage gives Belichick the ability to be more creative in passing situations, especially with his last year of having a historically great secondary.

In addition to being able to rush the passer, Parsons is also a stout run defender. One of the bigger problems in the Patriots’ defense the past few years has been stopping the run, as noted above, particularly on the edge. While Parsons won’t be playing on the edge, he will be seeing some snaps on the ball to try to deter runs to the outside.

Weaknesses: Parsons does labor a little to directional changes, which can be exposed in man coverage. His overall football IQ mitigates that to a degree, but if asked to cover a back in space there is some concern about his ability to limit big plays as opposed to playing more traditional linebacker coverage assignments. That’s not necessarily a knock on him, as that is a question for all linebackers in the NFL regardless of experience or athletic ability.

Why the Patriots should draft him: The Patriots overall don’t have a lot of players on offense or defense that have an All-Pro ceiling. Even though the team recently invested a second-round pick in a player with similar traits (Josh Uche), it very well could take a major step forward on defense with two potential stud linebackers in the middle rather than one. It’s a similar situation to when the Patriots drafted Jamie Collins in the second round a year after taking Dont’a Hightower in the first.

If Parsons is sitting there at the 15th overall selection, the Patriots should very much consider making him a future cornerstone of their defense — much like Hightower became after joining the team in 2012.

Why the Patriots might not draft him: Ignoring the obvious availability argument, the Patriots may ultimately view that grabbing a blue chip talent at a different position has a better return on investment. Players like Patrick Surtain II, a boundary cornerback from Alabama, or even fellow linebacker Zaven Collins — due to his physical profile more reminiscent of Hightower while Uche is more like Jamie Collins — may appeal more to the Patriots.

Parsons also opted out of the 2020 season from Penn State, so that will also be something the team will need to consider — from how the year off may have impacted his development, to his commitment to returning for what might be an equally uncertain 2021 season.

Projected 2021 role: Parsons would compete with Ja’Whaun Bentley for the second linebacker role alongside Josh Uche. He would also see some time on special teams to get him on the field while waiting his turn at the linebacker position.

Who does he have to beat out: Looking beyond Uche and Bentley, the team also has Anfernee Jennings on the second year of his rookie pact as well as second-year player Terez Hall. Jennings had only a limited impact during an inconsistent 2020 rookie season, while Hall looked decent when put on the field. Parsons would be looking to try to bump both those two down the depth chart a bit should he be selected with the 15th overall pick.

Projected Role for 2022 and beyond: For the long haul, I expect him to pair up with Uche to form a fearsome linebacker duo similar to the one the Patriots had with in Hightower and Collins back in 2014-15. He’s a better fit playing in the second level of the defense with some occasional on-ball snaps on early downs before being used to disguise coverages on third down and in obvious passing situations.

Parsons would likely be a candidate to receive the green dot as the main defensive signal caller on the field as well at one point, and help line his teammates up — a role previously held by Hightower that went to Devin McCourty in 2020. If he reaches his ceiling, he’ll walk away with at least one first-team All-Pro selection in his time with New England and be a cornerstone of the defense for years to come.

Final thoughts: I would put the odds of Parsons being available for the Patriots at the 15th overall pick as the same they would draft a quarterback or wide receiver in that same spot: not very high. However, depending on how the draft unfolds, especially at those QB or WR positions, Parsons and other top-tier defensive prospects could be pushed further down in the first round to where a team like the Patriots could entertain the idea of trading up a few spots.

One previous draft day trade from 15 to 10, for example, included third- and fifth-round selections when the Arizona Cardinals traded up to land Josh Rosen out of UCLA three years ago. With Parsons and another great scheme fit in Zaven Collins as the next linebacker on the board and not much drop-off between them, the Patriots certainly seem to have options if they want to target a linebacker in the middle of the first round come the draft.