The New England Patriots defense was simply not good enough last season. The backend couldn’t live up to its historic 2019 campaign, the front line was decimated by injuries, and the second level, which could be viewed as the most important aspect of that defense, underwent some major personnel turnover.
If the 2019 linebacking corps that consisted of Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins were the Boogeymen, the 2020 group of Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall, and a couple of rookies, were the kid hiding under the sheets from the Boogeymen. It was THAT bad.
The Patriots will undoubtedly be looking for a couple of upgrades this offseason. Hightower is likely to return from his Coronavirus opt-out, but he’s not getting any younger. Bentley and Hall are fine early-down run stuffers but they don’t quite fit the mold of a modern day NFL linebacker. The two rookies I mentioned earlier, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, struggled to pick up the role of an off-ball linebacker, something neither really did in college.
The Patriots’ options fall in free agency or the draft, and the draft could provide a solid plug-and-play option for a cheap price.
Name: Jabril Cox
School: LSU (Senior)
Opening day age: 23
2020 stats: 10 games; 58 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, 3 interceptions, 1 defensive touchdown.
Size: 6’4”, 230 lbs
Expected round: Day 2
#Patriots Draft Target Thread: LB Jabril Cox (LSU) 6’3 233 lbs:— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) February 15, 2021
• Former NDSU standout before transferring to LSU for senior season.
• Explosive and athletic in the middle of the LSU defense
• One of the best cover LB’s in the draft pic.twitter.com/KXQT5QOkjf
Strengths: Jabril Cox’s strength comes in his versatile play style. He’s a rangy off-ball linebacker who can run with backs and be physical with tight ends in coverage, as well as play a gap shooting style in the run game.
Cox showed great feel in coverage as he did a good job mirroring and rerouting offensive players to keep himself in each rep. Even when he made slight mistakes, his ability to flip his hips and stride made up for it. He was just dominant at points.
Cox saw a ton of time in the slot during his time at NDSU and carried his coverage skills over to LSU for his grad year. Athletic freak that had no issue in coverage and could run/cover anyone in the second level. Big play here. pic.twitter.com/vmjcfABTu9— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) February 15, 2021
Cox is a patient player, never cheating up a few steps or leaning towards the strong or weak side. He let’s the game come to him, and allows his athleticism to keep him in plays.
Cox is no question the best cover LB in the draft. His long, athletic frame allow him to run and cover RB’s, physical TE’s, slots etc. Always making plays on the ball. pic.twitter.com/IlAXEHgdSb— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) February 15, 2021
As a run defender, Cox is at his best shooting gaps or playing near the edge. He’s got really good bend and can avoid blocks without taking himself out of the play. When allowed to play in space, Cox’s athleticism shines through.
Mostly known for his ability to cover but can defend the run/read plays pretty well. Great anticipation and burst here off the edge to for a big TFL in the Senior Bowl. pic.twitter.com/AtuKOivcF6— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) February 15, 2021
Weaknesses: Cox is much better suited to play the Will (weakside) linebacker role rather than the Mike or Sam (middle/strongside) positions, but unfortunately all of his time in college came as a Mike. He will have to adapt to a spot with less responsibility but that makes him play in more space. Though he can certainly keep up physically, the mental part could prove to be a major hurdle.
What would be his role? Though the Patriots certainly got more athletic at the linebacker position in 2020, they didn’t add anyone with experience off-ball. They looked to convert college edge guys Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche, but were ultimately left relying on practice squad call-up and eventual signee Terez Hall to fill that role. Cox would provide a much more athletic and higher-upside option at that spot.
Does he have positional versatility? Though he’s never played outside of the middle of a defense, Cox’s profile would keep most optimistic that he could develop into an off-ball role if he needed to. His physical tools are that of a super versatile defender, he’s just never been asked to be that.
Who’s his competition? This all relies on whether or not the Patriots view Josh Uche as a true off-ball linebacker or an uber-athletic hybrid on the edge. I think his ceiling is as that hybrid player, meaning Cox’s competition in the middle could be Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, and Terez Hall. When it comes down to athleticism and the ability to cover, none of them can compete.
Why the Patriots? The Patriots’ linebacking corps was a mess following Hightower’s opt-out last year. Reserve players were forced into starting, and rookies — without the benefit of an offseason — had to fill the reserve roles. A Hightower comeback along with the addition of a plug-and-play player such as Cox could help everything fall into place.
Why not the Patriots? If you can think of a reason I’d like to hear it in the comments.
Verdict: Yes. Absolutely. Positively. Correct. I’m in. You should be in. Bill Belichick should be in. Yes again.