Even though Dont’a Hightower will return from his Coronavirus opt-out and resume his role as the leader of their defensive front-seven, the New England Patriots are in need for more talent at the off-the-ball linebacker position. Hightower is not getting any younger, after all, and the depth behind him is either unproven or not really up to NFL standards.
New England might therefore look to the draft to bolster the group, and to another Alabama linebacker who offers an exciting athletic skillset and served as a leader for the Crimson Tide.
Name: Dylan Moses
School: Alabama (Redshirt Junior)
Opening day age: 23
2020 stats: 13 games (13 starts); 80 tackles (6.5 tackles for loss); 1.5 sacks; 1 forced fumble; 1 interception, 3 pass breakups
Size: 6012, 225 lbs, 78 1/4 wingspan, 31 7/8 arm, 9 1/4 hand
Workout numbers: N/A
Expected round: 4th
Strengths: Moses is an impressive talent who has the athletic skillset and reported drive to find major success at the next level. He moves well in the open field and has the sideline-to-sideline range to become a second-level playmaker. The former five-star recruit also is a gifted downhill run defender that has the instincts and confidence in his vision and diagnosis skills to blow up plays in the gap. He reads plays quickly and also is a sound finisher, missing just 13 tackles in his career.
Already showing NFL-level physicality and an ability to hit, Moses combines smarts with athleticism. His physical toughness is matched by his mental fortitude, though. He came back strong after having to sit out his 2019 junior season due to a torn ACL and continued to serve as a locker room leader and one of Alabama’s most productive players. A team captain, Moses is a high-upside defender.
Weaknesses: Medicals are a red flag. Moses missed all of his junior campaign after tearing the ACL in his right knee in August 2019; he later had to undergo two separate procedures in the aftermath (surgery after the original injury in 2019 and a clean-up following the 2020 season that limited his pre-draft availability). He also missed time during his 2017 freshman campaign after breaking his foot. He was far from 100 percent throughout his final year in college and looked noticeably stiffer and less explosive than he did pre-injury.
Moses also makes his fair share of mistakes when on the field and needs to become a more consistent processor. He is sometimes too reliant on his instincts and athleticism, seemingly jumping between overthinking or overshooting on a play-to-play basis. Oftentimes he runs right into traffic, losing track of blockers on his way to the ball carrier. His athleticism and general play speed covered up for a lot of bad reads and insufficient coverage drops.
Why the Patriots? With Dont’a Hightower in his 30s and no clear-cut replacement on the roster just yet, New England will have to think about life after the future Patriots (and Pro Football?) Hall of Famer. Moses would be a solid trainee behind him — a high-upside player that is in need of some development before being able to take over as a starter.
Why not the Patriots? His medical evaluation might be the biggest issue for team, but the Patriots also might be scared off by his comparatively unspectacular 2020 tape. Moses looked slow at times and not like the same impressive player he was before his knee injury. Will more time removed from the torn ACL help him, or is he now simply an impressive athlete but average player moving forward? That question could determine whether or not New England goes after him.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? After not being able to work out fully following a second knee surgery in February this year, Moses is a candidate to start training camp and maybe even the season on the physically unable to perform list. But even if the medicals check out and he does not, he will likely only play second fiddle in New England’s front seven as a rookie. He needs to learn before being trusted with a bigger role.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? In case Dont’a Hightower leaves in free agency next year or decides to retire, Moses would be a prime candidate to help take over as the number one off-the-ball linebacker. Ideally, he would have picked up the system by then and be able to use his general football smarts and athletic skillset in unison to develop into a starting-level defender for the Patriots and a Hightower-like move linebacker.
Does he have positional versatility? While he was used primarily as an off-the-ball inside linebacker in 2020, Moses has the athletic skills to also line up as an outside linebacker and attack around the edge: he played around one-fifth of his pre-injury snaps outside the box, and could be given a similar move role in New England’s hybrid scheme as well.
What is his special teams value? Unless there are some worries about his medicals, Moses could receive plenty of special teams playing time from early on in his career. He has the range to serve as a coverage player on both kickoffs and punts, and as such would be a two-unit player right from the get-go. His kicking game contributions would be closely tied to his defensive role, though.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Moses would be a relative safe bet to make New England’s roster this year if drafted in his expected range late early on Day 3. That said, he would compete for playing time against other inside and move linebackers on the Patriots’ current payroll: Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Terez Hall and LaRoy Reynolds would be his primary competition, with Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings also possibly competing for off-the-ball snaps.
Verdict: Moses is a gamble, but one that could yield tremendous results. His ceiling is that of a starting-caliber move linebacker at the NFL level, while his floor is that of a player slowed down by injury who is forced to play hesitant as a result. If New England brings him in on Day 3, the hope would be that some time behind the scenes would help him reach his potential and eventually even become Hightower’s heir.