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Patriots 2021 free agency preview: Plenty of linebackers could be on New England’s radar

Related: Patriots free agency preview: New England will have plenty of options to bolster its defensive line

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots invested three draft picks in their linebacker corps last year, but the group as a whole still struggled following the offseason departures of Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts. Be it on the edge or off the ball, New England was unable to field consistent contributors — an eventually fatal flaw in combination with the issues along the interior defensive line.

While Hightower’s expected return off the Coronavirus opt-out list as well as the development of second-year players Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings should all help the group, further reinforcements might be needed to return it to a strength of the defense as it was in 2019. Either through the draft or free agency, New England will be among the clubs looking to bolster its linebacker corps this offseason.

Before digging into the free agent options that might be available for the Patriots next week, however, let’s first take a closer look at who the team currently has under contract for the 2021 season at the position:

  • Ja’Whaun Bentley
  • Rashod Berry
  • Terez Hall
  • Dont’a Hightower
  • Anfernee Jennings
  • Brandon King
  • Cassh Maluia
  • Michael Pinckney
  • Josh Uche
  • Chase Winovich

The Patriots do have plenty of players at their disposal, but little certainty. Bentley and Hall were inconsistent when given bigger roles last season; Hightower is on the wrong side of 30 while coming off a year on the sidelines; Uche and Jennings are no guarantees to make a leap in Year Two; Winovich looked good as a pass rusher but was given uneven playing time versus the run; King and Maluia are special teamers; Berry and Pinckney are little more than projects at this point in their careers.

Three other members of New England’s 2020 linebacker corps are also headed for free agency once the market opens on March 17:

  • Shilique Calhoun (UFA)
  • Brandon Copeland (UFA)
  • John Simon (UFA)

John Simon was most prominently featured among the three, with him leading the Patriots’ front seven in snaps during the 2020 season. He was unable to properly replace Kyle Van Noy as the number one edge linebacker, though, and had major issues setting the edge in the running game. Like Calhoun and Copeland, he is therefore no lock to return to the team in 2021.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at free agent linebackers — in case you are wondering the order is alphabetical and nothing else — New England might be interested in adding under the right conditions.

Shaquil Barrett

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2020 statistics: 19 games; 66 tackles (15 tackles for loss); 98 quarterback pressures (12 sacks, 12 hits, 74 hurries); 2 forced fumbles

With the Buccaneers electing to use the franchise tag on wide receiver Chris Godwin, Shaquil Barrett will enter free agency — and he will be a popular player once the market opens. He notched almost a 100 quarterback pressures during the 2020 season, and is no less productive when it comes to setting the edge in the running game. The 28-year-old is a complete outside linebacker, and as such would be a tremendous addition to New England’s defense.

The question is, would the Patriots be willing to dig deep into their pockets to bring Barrett on board? He likely will command more than $15 million on a new deal.

Tarell Basham

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: New York Jets

2020 statistics: 16 games; 36 tackles (5 tackles for loss); 34 quarterback pressures (3.5 sacks, 9.5 hits, 21 hurries); 3 forced fumbles

If the Patriots don’t want to overspend on an edge defender to bolster their current group, Tarell Basham might be a target. The 26-year-old is coming off a productive season on a bad Jets team, and has proven himself solid against the pass and even more so the run. Ideally, Basham would be an upgrade over John Simon as an edge setter in the ground game with some added value as a pass rusher as well.

Tyus Bowser

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Baltimore Ravens

2020 statistics: 18 games; 38 tackles (5 tackles for loss); 34 quarterback pressures (2 sacks, 12 hits, 20 hurries); 3 interceptions

While the first two players on this list are prototypical outside linebackers, Tyus Bower falls more into the mold of Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins: he is a versatile move linebacker capable of playing both on the end of the line and off the ball as well. As such, he might get a long look by New England this offseason to possibly help address both the edge and the second level of the defense.

The 26-year-old also adds value in the kicking game: the Ravens used him regularly on special teams, employing him on both punt and kickoff return units as well as the punt coverage squad. He also saw action on the field goal and extra point blocking teams.

De’Vondre Campbell

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Arizona Cardinals

2020 statistics: 16 games; 99 tackles (7 tackles for loss); 6 quarterback pressures (2 sacks, 4 hurries); 1 forced fumble

Campbell brings considerable experience and upside as a starting-caliber linebacker to the table. Playing primarily off the ball as an inside linebacker, he appears to be a natural target for New England to bolster the group alongside Hightower and the younger players available. While he has had some issues in coverage during his time in Arizona and Atlanta and was only marginally successful as a pass rusher last year, his productivity against the run would give the Patriots’ coaching staff a solid foundation to work with.

Jadeveon Clowney

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Tennessee Titans

2020 statistics: 8 games; 19 tackles (4 tackles for loss); 28 quarterback pressures (6 hits, 22 hurries); 1 forced fumble

So far in his career, Jadeveon Clowney has not quite have lived up to his status as the first overall selection of the 2014 draft. That said, he is still a very good player capable of becoming an asset for the Patriots: the 28-year-old is as good a run defender from the edge as there is in the NFL, and also has upside versus the pass.

Of course, there are some questions. Not only did he miss considerable time in 2020 due to a knee injury, money and his willingness to subject himself to the New England program will also be deciding factors.

Carlos Dunlap

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 32

2020 team: Seattle Seahawks/Cincinnati Bengals

2020 statistics: 16 games; 34 tackles (8 tackles for loss); 44 quarterback pressures (6 sacks, 13 hits, 25 hurries)

The Seahawks decided to part ways with Dunlap after only half a season together, which also means that the veteran edge defender will not count against the NFL’s compensatory draft picks formula. Given that and his ability to still put pressure on the quarterback even on the wrong side of 30, the Patriots could be interested in bringing him aboard on a one-year “prove it”-type deal.

In that case, Dunlap would serve as a veteran presence along the defensive edge to help groom youngsters Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.

Bud Dupree

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2020 statistics: 11 games; 31 tackles (8 tackles for loss); 40 quarterback pressures (8 sacks, 7 hits, 25 hurries); 2 forced fumbles

Despite being only 28 years old, Bud Dupree already has 87 games on his NFL résumé. A former first-round draft pick, he has proven himself a disruptive player on the defensive edge capable of contributing against the run and the pass. As such, he very well could be on New England’s wish list this offseason.

Of course, the question is how much it would cost to bring the former first-rounder and long-time Steeler aboard. Dupree’s experience and past success speak for themselves, but him coming off a torn ACL might impact his price tag a bit. A financially reasonable short-term contract might be the best solution for both sides: Dupree would get to enter free agency again in a year or two, while New England would bolster its edge with a proven commodity.

Leonard Floyd

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Los Angeles Rams

2020 statistics: 18 games; 60 tackles (13 tackles for loss); 56 quarterback pressures (12.5 sacks, 9.5 hits, 34 hurries); 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries

Leonard Floyd’s career was off to a comparatively slow start — he totaled just 19.5 sacks in four seasons in Chicago — but he broke out after a change of scenery and joining the Rams on a one-year pact. While that one season could result in a big payday for the former top-10 draft pick, the Patriots might be able to get him comparatively cheap as a rotational pass rusher capable of adding depth alongside the likes of primary edge defenders Chase Winovich and Josh Uche.

Matt Judon

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 29

2020 team: Baltimore Ravens

2020 statistics: 16 games; 56 tackles (10 tackles for loss); 46 quarterback pressures (7 sacks, 16 hits, 23 hurries); 1 forced fumble

With the Ravens not using the franchise tag on him, Judon will get a taste of the open market next week. And if that happens, it would not be a surprise if the Patriots came calling.

After all, the 28-year-old is a well-established player who would be capable of helping New England’s defensive front seven in numerous ways. Whether it is setting a stout edge in the running game, rushing the passer from various alignments or blitz looks, or moving between the outside or off-the-ball positions Judon has plenty of experience. Adding him to the current linebacker group would make a lot of sense for the Patriots if the price is right.

Carl Lawson

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Cincinnati Bengals

2020 statistics: 16 games; 36 tackles (4 tackles for loss); 66 quarterback pressures (5.5 sacks, 26.5 hits, 34 hurries); 2 forced fumbles

A former fourth-round draft pick who has developed into a reliable player for the Bengals, Lawson certainly is a player to watch in free agency. He is still young and more than capable when it comes to collapsing the pocket from the edge, and offers a frame — 6-foot-2, 265 pounds — that could help him become an able run-stopper as well.

However, the running game is arguably the biggest uncertainty when it comes to him: Lawson has been inconsistent in this area, which means that the Patriots would have to feel pretty good about his projected development in their system in order to invest in him.

Raekwon McMillan

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 25

2020 team: Las Vegas Raiders

2020 statistics: 16 games; 27 tackles (1 tackles for loss); 1 forced fumble

A former second-round pick who has failed to live up to his draft status in both Miami and Las Vegas, McMillan can be seen as a reclamation project entering free agency. Despite being only 25 years old, he has plenty experience — he has appeared in 45 games so far — and could turn into a rotational off-the-ball option for the Patriots. McMillan would not be a marquee addition, but at the very least would push Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall for playing time or a spot on the roster.

Nicholas Morrow

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Las Vegas Raiders

2020 statistics: 14 games; 78 tackles (8 tackles for loss); 9 quarterback pressures (3 sacks, 3 hits, 3 hurries); 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery; 1 interception

While a bit on the smaller side at 6-foot-0, 225 pounds, Morrow has been a productive player during his four seasons with the Raiders. As such, he might fall into the same category as his former teammate Raekwon McMillan in that he would also not break the bank but still help push the Patriots’ current off-the-ball linebackers. There is one major difference between the two players, though: Morrow’s production has been more impressive so far.

Yannick Ngakoue

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Baltimore Ravens/Minnesota Vikings

2020 statistics: 17 games; 23 tackles (7 tackles for loss); 42 quarterback pressures (8 sacks, 3 hits, 31 hurries); 4 forced fumbles

While he has been a bit of a journeyman so far in his career — he spent time in Jacksonville, Minnesota and Baltimore during his five NFL seasons — and was traded twice in 2020 alone, Ngakoue would be a tremendous addition to a Patriots pass rush that struggled to get home last year. He has posted consistent numbers attacking the pocket and at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds would fit what New England is looking for.

The question with Ngakoue is whether or not the Patriots would really be willing to pay more than $15 million to get him aboard. That is especially true considering that he has been used more as a pass rush specialist than a true three-down outside linebacker so far in his career. New England would likely prefer getting the latter for that price tag.

Romeo Okwara

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Detroit Lions

2020 statistics: 16 games; 44 tackles (11 tackles for loss); 60 quarterback pressures (10 sacks, 8 hits, 42 hurries); 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery

If New England wants to add a pass rush specialist without paying market rate for Yannick Ngakoue or Shaquil Barrett, maybe Romeo Okwara would be an option.

After two quiet seasons with the New York Giants, he flourished under Matt Patricia and his Patriots-like scheme in Detroit. With Patricia having returned to New England earlier this offseason, maybe Okwara would be open to joining the club as well to add some size along the defensive edge at 6-foot-4, 265 pounds. He also could be used in the kicking game after having played 204 snaps there in 2020.

Denzel Perryman

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Los Angeles Chargers

2020 statistics: 13 games; 48 tackles (3 tackles for loss); 3 quarterback pressures (1 sack, 1 hit, 1 hurries); 1 forced fumble

An experienced player who has 69 career games on his résumé, Denzel Perryman may be a bit on the shorter side at 5-foot-11 but is still an able off-the-ball linebacker. While not the most impressive pass rusher based on his usage with the Chargers, he is capable of making an impact on early downs due to his physical edge and ability to quickly shoot his gaps. If the Patriots want to fill the old Elandon Roberts role, Perryman could be their guy.

Haason Reddick

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Arizona Cardinals

2020 statistics: 16 games; 63 tackles (15 tackles for loss); 50 quarterback pressures (12.5 sacks, 3.5 hits, 35 hurries); 6 forced fumbles

In the past, the Patriots have repeatedly taken fliers on early-round draft picks who have not fully worked out with the teams that drafted them. Could Haason Reddick join a list that also includes linebackers such as Kyle Van Noy or Shea McClellin? It certainly is a possiblity, because the 26-year-old could be on his way out of Arizona after the Cardinals signed J.J. Watt in free agency — despite coming off the by far most productive season of his career.

Whether or not teams see this season as an outlier or a foundation to build upon will decide how much Reddick will eventually end up commanding on the open market. If the price stays reasonable and the Patriots feel good about their ability to turn him into more than just a pass rush specialists, they could give him a look.

Kyle Van Noy

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 30

2020 team: Miami Dolphins

2020 statistics: 13 games; 69 tackles (10 tackles for loss); 32 quarterback pressures (6 sacks, 4 hits, 22 hurries); 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries

When Van Noy left the Patriots for greener pastures last offseason, he did so off the best season of his career. He found some similar success in Miami despite joining the team without the benefit of a traditional offseason and proved himself a versatile veteran presence on the team’s defense. Despite his stint in Miami soon coming to an unceremonious end, he had a good year.

Could a return to New England be in the cards for Van Noy? It certainly would make sense given his experience in the team’s system and the fact that the Patriots need to upgrade their front seven after struggling to replace Van Noy. He could offer tremendous help not just due to his positional flexibility, but also his ability to set a stout edge in the running game — a major liability for New England in 2020.

Eric Wilson

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Minnesota Vikings

2020 statistics: 16 games; 122 tackles (8 tackles for loss); 11 quarterback pressures (3 sacks, 6 hits, 2 hurries); 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries; 3 interceptions

After being a role player for most of his first three years in Minnesota, Wilson was elevated to the starter level in 2020 and produced some impressive numbers. But while he could be in line for a major payday based on his development in combination with his comparative youth, his inconsistency against the run might keep him in a reasonable financial range. If that is the case, New England might decide to pounce and have him offer depth as an off-the-ball linebacker.

Patriots outlook

The linebacker position is one of the biggest needs on the Patriots’ current roster after a disappointing 2020 season. While Dont’a Hightower’s return as well as the projected development of youngsters Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings would help the unit return to some more competitive levels of play, adding additional bodies over the offseason should still be on the team’s to-do list.

When it comes to free agency, there are plenty of potential linebacker targets available this year. While the draft might be the best way to address the long-term outlook at the position, adding some talent in free agency — and be it only to bolster the depth off the ball and on the edge — seems like a reasonable approach as well.