The story of the New England Patriots’ linebacker position in 2020 is well known. After losing three starters to either free agency (Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins) or the Coronavirus opt-out (Dont’a Hightower), the group went from one of the best in football to a liability while having to rely on unproven players or different positions to offer depth.
The Patriots did add some considerable talent over the course of the offseason so far by bringing back Van Noy and also signing Matthew Judon and Raekwon McMillan, but the long-term outlook is still uncertain. This is especially true in the off-the-ball category: Hightower is on the wrong side of 30, while Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall have not proven themselves starting-caliber players last year.
If New England wants to add some long-term developmental upside to the group, the best course of action might be to do so via the draft.
Name: Baron Browning
School: Ohio State (Senior)
Opening day age: 22
2020 stats: 7 games (5 starts); 30 tackles (3 tackles for loss); 1 quarterback disruption (1 sack); 2 forced fumbles; 2 fumble recoveries; 2 pass-breakups
Size: 6026, 245 lbs, 79 wingspan, 33 1/2 arm, 9 7/8 hand
Workout numbers: 4.55 40-yard dash, 40 vertical jump, 10’10” broad jump, 4.22 short shuttle, 6.78 3-cone drill, 23 bench press reps
Expected round: 2nd-3rd
Strengths: Browning is as intriguing a prospect as any the linebacker position has to offer in this year’s draft. His size is ideal to fill not just an off-the-ball role but also succeed when employed on the edge, while he has the athletic foundation to turn into a difference maker at the next level: he has the quickness and explosiveness to succeed when attacking downhill or dropping back, and has a level of speed few players of his frame possess.
The 22-year-old offers an elite first step that challenges offensive linemen from the get-go, whether it is in attack mode versus the pass or when trying to disengage in the running game. His length is a tool he knows how to use as well, while he moves efficiently in the lower half. Browning has shown that he can have success when playing downhill, notching 5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss during his 2019 senior campaign. His numbers were not on the same level in 2020, but he was still named third-team All-Big Ten.
Browning’s physical skills make him a high-upside player who has the theoretical versatility to play all over the front seven without a drop-off in quality. He has the tools to become a starter further down the line, and only needs to see his skills cultivated in the right environment. From a purely athletic perspective, though, Browning offers first-round value despite likely not hearing his name called until Day 2 of the draft.
Weaknesses: Browning has all the physical tools you want from an NFL-level linebacker, so why is he not a top-tier prospect like other players at the position group? For starters, he is incredibly raw and has shown some major inconsistencies during his time at Ohio State when it comes to diagnosing plays and reacting accordingly.
Browning gets caught jumping or over-reading plays that lead to missed assignments, a problem especially versus the run. He oftentimes does not properly go through his keys and seemingly sells out on his initial read, which leads to him getting caught out of position when asked to fill his gaps. He also has a tendency to play slower than his measurements suggest, with his processing skill not yet where they need to be.
Entering the NFL, Browning is no every-down defender yet and needs time to develop. His experience is limited as well after he only started nine games during his career as a Buckeye, and has to show that he can successfully compete in all phases of being a linebacker: from carrying out his assignments versus the run, to dropping into coverage, to rushing the passer. So far, he has not done either of those things on a consistent enough level to suggest he will be anything more than a role player in the NFL.
Why the Patriots? New England has bolstered its defensive front seven this offseason, but long-term questions about the off-the-ball linebacker position remain. As noted above, Hightower has crossed the bridge into where the 31-year-olds live, while neither Ja’Whaun Bentley nor Terez Hall appears to be a starter-level presence despite seeing plenty of action in this capacity. Browning would not just raise the talent floor, but also give the Patriots a high-upside player to develop behind the scenes.
Why not the Patriots? Not only is there a realistic chance Browning gets picked right between New England’s Day 2 selections (2-46 and 3-96), he also is a gamble. His upside is tremendous but he will likely be of little use this year, which raises the question: Why invest in a player like that when Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings — two developmental linebackers — were picked in the second and third rounds last year already. Adding a player to that group with Browning’s boom-or-bust potential might not be what the Patriots need compared to the potential other linebacker targets this year.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? With Dont’a Hightower set to return from the list of Covid-19 opt-outs, the Patriots will get their most best off-the-ball linebacker option back in the fold. In turn, Browning would not be needed to immediately play a big role within New England’s defense: he would likely be used in package-specific fashion in Year 1, probably as a part-time pass rusher from the edge or second-level blitzer.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? If Browning can improve his play recognition and reactionary skills, he appears to be a prime candidate for a more prominent role in Year 2. His development and Dont’a Hightower’s future after the 2020 season will determine what it will look like, though. Ideally, Browning becomes a three-down player even though a more specialized role versus the pass still might be best suited for his skillset.
Does he have positional versatility? Browning was used primarily as a classic off-the-ball linebacker during his time at Ohio State, but the Buckeyes’ coaching staff trusted him with increased snaps on the line of scrimmage as well during his 2020 campaign. As for his role at the next level, his athleticism makes him an intriguing player to maybe fill the Hightower-like move role one day; ultimately, however, he will have to prove himself worthy and capable of being responsible for more than just a specific positional role.
What is his special teams value? Given his intriguing athletic profile, Browning appears to be a prime candidate for a kicking game role as soon as he enters the building. He can contribute on punt and kickoff coverage teams and also see some action as a pressure player on field goal and extra point tries. While the focus of his development should be placed on the defensive side of the ball, he could find his way onto the field early if able to carve out a role on special teams.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Browning would be a roster lock if drafted in his expected range, but he would still compete for playing time regardless of where the Patriots project him. Players such as Josh Uche, Chase Winovich, Anfernee Jennings, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Terez Hall, Tashawn Bower and Rashod Berry are all competing for snaps and, in most cases, spots on the team. Browning would have his locked up, but his involvement on defense will depend on how he performs compared to all these other players.
Verdict: Browning is an intriguing prospect, whose physical tools are impressive and whose upside is comparable to that of first-round prospects Micah Parsons (Penn State) and Zaven Collins (Tulsa). He is much more of a boom-bust prospect than those two, however, and far from a safe projection given his limited exposure in college as well as the weaknesses he will need to address in the NFL. The Patriots would present an ideal landing spot in this regard, but they might decide to go in a different direction with some young, developmental linebackers already on the roster.