Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.
All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is linebacker Brandon Copeland, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.
Name: Brandon Copeland
Position: Move linebacker
Jersey number: 52
Opening day age: 30
Size: 6-foot-3, 265 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What is his experience? Despite a productive four-year career at the University of Pennsylvania, Copeland did not hear his name called during the NFL’s 2013 draft. Instead, he had to go the free agency route to find a team — and find one he did when the Baltimore Ravens signed him to an undrafted rookie deal. He did not last long in Baltimore, though, and saw his tenure come to an end on roster cutdown day. After a month on the open market, Copeland joined the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad.
He went on to spend two seasons on Tennessee’s developmental roster, but his career took a turn for the better after leaving Tennessee in 2015: after signing with the Detroit Lions, Copeland appeared in 33 games over the next two seasons — playing primarily on special teams and as a rotational linebacker — before missing all of 2017 due to a pectoral injury. He returned the following season as a member of the New York Jets, and was given a more prominent role on defense while still playing plenty of snaps in the kicking game as well.
Over two years, Copeland appeared in 28 games for his new team as a versatile move linebacker playing both on and off the line of scrimmage. Including his one year with the Patriots in 2020, the veteran therefore has 67 in-game appearances on his NFL résumé — all of which coming after the 2015 season — while notching seven sacks as well as a pair of forced fumbles.
What did his 2020 season look like? After two years in New York, Copeland decided to change the green and white for the red, white and blue: the veteran defender signed a one-year free agency contract with the Patriots to bolster a linebacker group that had lost Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts on the open market just a few days before. While not guaranteed a roster spot, he eventually was able to make the 53-man team and did see regular action over the first few weeks of the season.
Between Weeks 1 and 7, Copeland was on the field for 60 of a possible 370 defensive snaps (16.2%) and registered 10 tackles — eight in the running game and two versus the pass. He also had two quarterback disruptions while being used in a move role in the mold of Dont’a Hightower, who had opted out before the start of the season: Copeland was used both on the edge and off-the-ball despite primarily being used as a package player rather than a true every-down linebacker.
The majority of his action, meanwhile, came in the kicking game: Copeland played 116 of 144 possible special teams snaps (80.6%) before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season after six games. Before the injury, he had appeared on five kicking game units — he was used on punt return and coverage, kickoff return and coverage, and on the place kick blocking squad — and notched a pair of tackles. Copeland was a core player in the game’s third phase, even though New England did seemingly not skip a beat after his departure.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Joining the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent, Copeland has signed deals with five different teams over the course of his career. His first came in Baltimore, even though he never appeared in a game for the team. He later signed a practice squad deal in Tennessee before receiving his first true free agency pact in Detroit: a one-year, $615,000 deal. He went on to sign two one-year deals with the Jets and another in New England to bring his estimated contractual earnings to $5.3 million at this point in his career, via Over the Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? Even though teams could value the versatility he brings to the linebacker position, Copeland will likely be more popular as a kicking game presence. Accordingly, teams in need of upgrading their special teams could be interested in bringing him in: the Los Angeles Chargers, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings are potential landing spots after having struggled in the game’s third phase in 2020.
Why should he be expected back? Copeland’s experience and ability to line up in more than one spot over the defensive front seven would make him an interesting rotational option at linebacker — a position that has had its issues last season and faces an uncertain future even if Dont’a Hightower returns. Copeland should not be expected to play at a starter level, but his versatility and special teams prowess could make him a solid part of the group.
Why should he be expected to leave? Not only is Copeland coming back off a season-ending injury, his impact in 2020 was also comparatively limited: he was solid in the kicking game, but provided only little value on the defensive side of the ball. Given that New England already has two promising young linebackers looking in the pipeline — Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings — the 30-year-old might not have much of a shot at more snaps at the position, especially if additional higher-upside players get added over the offseason.
What is his projected free agency outcome? While it is certainly possible that the Patriots bring Copeland back on a minimum salary deal to offer leadership and experienced depth at the linebacker position, the team might prefer to look elsewhere to replace his role in 2021. After all, his upside appears to be limited and New England does have the resources both in free agency and the draft to bring some actual difference-makers on board — players who would make it tough for Copeland to make an impact to begin with.