Off-the-ball linebacker depth was a major issue for the New England Patriots in 2020. After losing Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency, and Dont’a Hightower to the Coronavirus opt-out list, the team was forced to rely on third-year man Ja’Whaun Bentley as well as a rag-tag group of recently signed players: practice squad call-up Terez Hall, rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, and safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger.
Hightower returning for the 2021 season will bolster the position’s depth, but the Patriots cannot rely on him alone. They need development out of its young players, and more depth in the off-ball department to groom alongside the veteran. Uche and Jennings have both shown promise, but bringing in more talent via the draft should also be on the team’s to-do list this offseason.
If that is indeed the case, and New England decides against spending a first-round pick on a player such as Penn State’s Micah Parsons, Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah or Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, a converted safety out of TCU could be targeted in one of the middle rounds. Let’s meet Garret Wallow.
Name: Garret Wallow
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
School: Texas Christian (Senior)
Opening day age: 22
2020 stats: 10 games; 90 tackles (9.0 for loss); 3.0 sacks, 5 quarterback hits; 3 forced fumbles
Size: 6020, 230 lbs
Expected round: 3rd-4th
Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A
If the #Patriots look to move Dugger to a traditional safety role next season, they could add a player who fits the hybrid LB/S spot he occupied in 2020.— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) February 14, 2021
TCU LB (and former S) Garret Wallow may be the perfect man to take over. A name to watch come April.pic.twitter.com/S5Eo3DuXY5
Strengths: The first thing that jumps out when looking at Wallow is his productivity: he was a beast at TCU, finishing his career with 295 tackles and 32.5 tackles for loss. Despite registering just one interception, he showed a knack for finding the ball and attacking it — be it as a pass rusher or when in coverage. In general, he displayed an ability to do both: he has the feel to attack as a second-level blitzer as well as the sideline-to-sideline range to stick with his assignments in coverage.
Wallow also has shown some good closing speed when it comes to chasing down players in pursuit, either from the backside of the play or when giving up receptions in coverage. His athleticism also allows him to cover some of the mistakes that he makes while still learning the intricacies of the off-the-ball linebacker spot (he changed positions from safety in 2018). In general, though, he seems comfortable at carrying out the assignments this new role brings. His experience playing off the ball may help with that.
Wallow also has shown a willingness to attack downhill in the running game, and to trust his instincts albeit at a somewhat inconsistent level. He also served as a leader on the Horned Frogs’ defense and was the school’s lone on-field team captain during the season.
Weaknesses: Wallow is still new to the off-the-ball linebacker position and it shows from time to time: he still needs to learn the ins and outs of the spot in order to effectively function at the next level. His instincts are not yet where they need to be to compete against NFL-caliber competition, and he needs to learn to trust them more consistently. He also has shown some hesitance when playing downhill and instead working side-to-side. More experience should help, but at the moment he lacks just that.
He is slightly undersized compared to the prototypical linebacker, and his physicality reflects this at times. While he is a willing tackler and has the motor to make up for this somewhat, he also needs to improve his tackling technique and become better at wrapping up and finishing his tackling attempts. Wallow also can be swallowed up and erased from the play when meeting linemen at the second level, either on run plays or screen passes.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, linebacker depth was a major issue for New England in 2020. While Dont’a Hightower’s will help in this area, the soon-to-be 31-year-old is not a long-term solution at the position: the Patriots need better athleticism and some young blood to groom alongside him and eventually take on a bigger role in the future. Wallow has the upside to become a prominent member of the off-ball rotation together with versatile move options Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, and is a state-of-the-art linebacker in that he can effectively cover while also being able to play downhill.
Why not the Patriots? Despite Uche and Jennings showing promise in 2020, the off-the-ball linebacker position remains a major question mark for the Patriots. In turn, they may want to go with safer projections than the boom-or-bust player that is Garret Wallow. He also does not quite fit what New England is traditionally looking for in its players at the position: he is on the smaller side and might also have to bulk up to consistently win downhill in the NFL, possibly losing some of his mobility in the process.
What would be his role in New England in 2020? Regardless of the other moves the team might make in free agency or earlier in the draft, the 2020 season should be a sit-and-learn year for Wallow. He has plenty of ground to make up before becoming an NFL-caliber linebacker, after all, and the Patriots should use him accordingly as a rookie. He could see semi-regular action in certain sub packages as a weak-side linebacker and on special teams, though.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2020? With Hightower headed for unrestricted free agency in 2021, the door may be open for somebody else to take over a starting role in the heart of New England’s defense. If Wallow starts reaching his sky-high potential and get more comfortable within the system, he could be this guy. But even if that is not the case, he should see increased playing time and grow into a core special teamer.
Does he have positional versatility? Despite his background as a safety, his versatility is a bit limited. He best projects as a weak-side linebacker off the line of scrimmage, and appears to be most comfortable when the play is in front of him. That said, he can be a three-down player if due to his willingness and abilities at attacking downhill versus the run and keeping with tight ends and running backs in coverage.
What is his special teams value? Wallow could become a four-unit special teams player right from the get go, but at the very least should see action on both punt and kickoff coverage units. He also might be able to contribute on the punt return team as a pressure player up front, and maybe even get some snaps on kickoff returns.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? The Patriots’ current linebacker depth consists of three move options who are all de facto locks to make the team — Dont’a Hightower, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings — as well as traditional off-ball players such as Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall, Cassh Maluia and Michael Pinckney. Those four project to be Wallow’s major competition for a roster spot, even though he should be relatively safe in Year One if drafted in his expected range.
Verdict: Wallow’s potential in the Patriots’ system certainly is enticing, but the question is whether or not the team agrees. He is, after all, another undersized player at a position that struggled to play stout run defense last year. If that is not a problem for the team and the 22-year-old projects favorably in the scouting department’s eyes, he could join New England to give a multi-faceted defense even more layers.