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2021 Patriots positional preview: Linebackers

Related: Patriots positional preview: Defensive line

Super Bowl LIII - New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ 2020 linebacking corps was in a constant state of flux. Only John Simon, who is currently a free agent, started all 16 games for the team one season ago. The rest of the starters were career reserve players, rookies, practice squad members, and a safety. With such a lack of talent, success was never really an option for the group in 2020.

Heading into 2021, Bill Belichick and company made sure that a lack of talent wouldn’t be an excuse, signing a few high priced free agents, drafting a couple of high upside rookies, and reintroducing the most important player on their defense.

Much like we saw at tight end, defensive line, and wide receiver, the Patriots are looking to transform their linebacking corps from a 2020 weakness into a 2021 strength.

Dont’a Hightower

He’s baaaaaack! After the 2020 opt-out and lots of speculation throughout the off-season, Hightower put all those rumors to rest when he participated in minicamp. Hightower was missed mightily last season as the Patriots lacked leadership and playmaking ability in the middle of their defense. The three-time Super Bowl champion plays in the heart of the Patriots defense while parlaying that with leadership, physicality and high football IQ.

Hightower is strong against the run and can get after the passer in the Patriots multiple different schemes they throw at opposing offenses. It’s no secret the Patriots defense went from one of the leagues best to worst in just a season, with their veteran leader back in the fold for 2021, expect the Patriots to return to an elite-defense with Hightower leading the way.

Matthew Judon

Seeing that he was their most expensive free agency acquisition, it’s safe to assume that the Patriots will have Matthew Judon shoulder a heavy workload almost immediately. During his time in Baltimore, Judon played 4i, 4, 5, 7, 6, and 9-techniques as well as a little bit of time off the ball. In layman’s terms, Judon played in seven different alignments for the Ravens and will likely be asked to play more for the team that just handed him a $54.5 million contract.

The idea behind the Patriots adding a versatile player like Judon is to allow for the team to maximize the amount of looks they can give on defense without having a fall in production because of the need to make substitutions.

Judon’s role will be an important one. He will set the edge, rush the passer and do everything in between. Aside from the man above and someone that we’ll talk about next week, it may be the most important.

Kyle Van Noy

After one year in Miami, the two-time Super Bowl champion is back into the fold in the Patriots linebacker room. The Patriots desperately missed Van Noy’s versatility and ability to get pressure on the quarterback off the edge. Given the struggle the Patriots defense endured during the 2020 season at the off-ball spot, Van Noy should plug right back into that role potentially finding himself sharing snaps alongside Dont’a Hightower.

Van Noy’s versatility as an edge rusher and strong against both the pass and run make this Patriots defense elite. Van Noy will be one of the Patriots most important defenders due to his experience and leadership in the front seven. All in all, Van Noy back in the fold makes this Patriots defense deeper and more elite.

Josh Uche

Things weren’t easy for Josh Uche in his rookie season. Injuries and a lack of experience in the role he was asked to play in led to a severe lack of snaps, especially for what is expected out of a second round draft pick. Luckily for Uche and the Patriots, in his limited time on the field he balled out.

Uche’s 75.1 Pro Football Focus pass rush grade was the second highest of any rookie in 2020, trailing only defensive rookie of the year Chase Young. In addition to his pass rushing prowess, Uche showed promise in coverage and as a run defender. Recent reports out of Foxboro have stated that Uche was the best defensive player on the field this spring. The hype is real for Uche, and he should be given an immediate chance to live up to it.

Chase Winovich

After a strong rookie campaign, Winovich seemingly found himself in Bill Belichick’s doghouse a year ago and certainly had his ups and downs in 2020. In a year where the Patriots struggled to get after the quarterback, Winovich showed promise again in year two. He appeared in all 16 games while being on the field for 594 out of 1,017 defensive snaps (58.4%) — second-most among the club’s linebacker’s.

While Winovich has seen most of his time as an outside linebacker and an edge setter, he will likely see the same role with more of a snap share after the big-money signing of Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Josh Uche’s expected Year 2 leap and third-round pick Ronnie Perkins. While Winovich will have to compete for consistent snaps, he serves as a viable option as a rotational pass rusher that can cause havoc in the back field.

Ronnie Perkins

A lot of what we said about Matt Judon applies to Ronnie Perkins, just on a much smaller scale. The positional versatility and talent in serving multiple roles are comparable, but as we all know, the Patriots won’t put Perkins into any compromising situations during his rookie year.

What the team will do with Perkins is simple: they will pick their spots in an effort to highlight his strengths and cover up his weaknesses.

For example, Perkins’ best attribute is his play speed and range as a run defender. Playing him as a weak side 6-technique and allowing him to run plays down from behind would be a way to maximize that.

Ja’Whaun Bentley

After being voted team captain amidst the 2020 season, Bentley took on a much bigger role due to the opt-out of Dont’a Hightower and a lot of turnover at the linebacker position. Bentley stepped into the Hightower role in 2020 and certainly had his ups and downs during the season. He ranked second on the team with 91 tackles but struggled against the run and was removed the mic after Week 4 to Devin McCourty.

Bentley is a physical linebacker that struggles a bit in space. Due to the improved linebacker room, Bentley should return to his rotational role and serve as a depth piece in 2021.

Raekwon McMillan

It’s been a slow fall for Raekwon McMillan since his selection in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. An ACL tear prior to his rookie season and three subsequent years of declining on field play left him as a fairly unheralded free agent this offseason.

The Patriots decided to take a shot on the former five-star recruit in March by inking him to a one year deal. It’s unlikely that McMillan can make a jump to find his way into the rotation but a spot on special teams is always in the cards. There’s no doubt that the Patriots like to find former high end draft picks and turn them into contributors.

Anfernee Jennings

After the Patriots spent a third-round pick on Jennings in 2020, he didn’t see much time on the defensive side of things as a rookie and saw most of his snaps on special teams. Jennings is a versatile defender that can get after the passer but with the added pieces to the Patriots linebacking room, Jennings will have to compete with Chase Winovich, Ronnie Perkins and Raekwon McMillan for regular snaps in a loaded front seven for the Patriots.

Terez Hall

Terez Hall was a nice surprise in a year that brought a lot of turmoil to Patriots fans. . . depending on who you ask.

He certainly did more than what was expected, given the fact that he started the year as a practice squad player. He played well on early downs and showed that he was a capable run stuffer, but struggled mightily in the passing game and got lost at times trying to make plays. Many would say that the importance of his role to the team was a major factor in the team’s struggles defensively.

It’s unlikely he’ll carry anywhere near the same workload in 2021.

Cameron McGrone

First and foremost, allow us to brag for absolutely nailing the fact that the Patriots would draft Cameron McGrone.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about McGrone and how he profiles as a low risk, high reward prospect.

Looking strictly at traits, you find that McGrone is an explosive player with a rock solid build and great understanding of how to defeat different blocking schemes, as well as a great athletic makeup that will help him progress as a more complete player. The only reason he fell to pick No. 177 was because of a late season ACL tear and his lack of college experience.

The combination of those factors made him a perfect fit for New England, who will use his rookie season as a redshirt year to teach and develop him into their notoriously difficult system. He’ll be a name to look out for in 2022.

Harvey Langi

Harvey Langi is back for his second stint with New England and he comes back with more experience.

His year in New England in 2017, followed by a two-year stint in New York with the Jets, have served as a nice primer to the competition he’s headed into in 2021. Every single non-rookie on this list has been a starter in the NFL. The likelihood that Langi comes out of camp with a spot on the roster is slim, but just like in 2017 when he made the team as an UDFA you can’t fully count him out.

Who will be paired with Dont’a Hightower in the middle?

The Patriots are loaded with talent and versatility at the linebacking spot and should be able to roll players in and out in the different schemes they will throw at their opponent. With speed and playmaking ability deep at linebacker, expect Kyle Van Noy or potentially Josh Uche to slot in and play off-ball next to Dont’a Hightower.

How large will the rotation be?

With such a bevy of talent, you would expect that the 2021 Patriots would increase the size of their linebacker rotation. Well, believe it or not they deployed 14 different LB/EDGE players in 2020, so it will almost certainly get smaller.

Hightower, Van Noy, Uche, and Judon will almost certainly make the majority of starts for the group. You will also see lots of Chase Winovich and Ja’Whaun Bentley as rotational players. That may be the list of guys who get consistent snaps. Ronnie Perkins will make the team but his role will be entirely reliant upon what situation the team is in health and standings wise. Cameron McGrone was already ruled out of having a big role by the coach. McMillan, Jennings, Hall, and Langi will all be fighting for a job as a special teams/rotational guy at the bottom of the depth chart.

What does the future look like at linebacker?

A year removed from rolling out one of the league’s worst linebacking core, the Patriots are loaded with talent and depth for years to come. With veterans Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy leading the way, the Patriots have a ton of youth and playmaking ability inserted into their future at the position. Matthew Judon should be one of the Patriots best players paired with the youth of Josh Uche, Ronnie Perkins and Chase Winovich, the Patriots are sustained to have a ton of talent and depth that the position beyond the 2021 season,