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Patriots 2021 training camp competitions to watch: Off-the-ball linebacker

Related: Patriots training camp competitions to watch: Slot wide receiver

New England Patriots Training Camp Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The New England Patriots fielded one of the most productive linebacker groups in all of football in 2019. Kyle Van Noy, John Simon and Chase Winovich formed a quality rotation at the edge/on-the-line positions; Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins were moved all over the place to create and regularly exploit favorable matchups; Ja’Whaun Bentley and Elandon Roberts served as rotational inside linebacker options playing exclusively off the ball.

The 2020 season looked drastically different, especially in the off-the-ball department. Not only did Collins and Roberts leave in free agency, the Patriots also lost Hightower to the Coronavirus opt-out list. With the three veterans gone, New England had to rely on Bentley and a group of unproven contributors to hold down the fort. They could not.

Bentley was the leader of the bunch and a team captain, but he lost signal-calling responsibilities early during the season and failed to properly replace Hightower. The others, meanwhile, had little impact as well, leading to New England relying on safety Adrian Phillips to fill in as a “star” defender; the first-year Patriot played a hybrid role between strong safety and off-the-ball linebacker.

Both he and Bentley are still around heading into 2021, but the biggest story of the summer is Hightower’s return. With him in the fold, the unit should be a better one than it was a year ago. The spots behind and alongside him, meanwhile, are up for grabs in what projects to be a fun training camp competition.

The competitors

LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB/DE Josh Uche, LB/DE Chase Winovich, LB/DE Anfernee Jennings, LB Terez Hall, LB Raekwon McMillan, LB/DE Harvey Langi, LB Cameron McGrone

Hightower and Phillips are locks to make the roster, as are versatile edge options Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy. That leaves eight players who are expected to fight for the other off-the-ball spots The group can be split in two parts: traditional inside linebackers and hybrid move defenders.

The inside linebackers are headed by last year’s one-two punch, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall. The group also includes free agency addition Raekwon McMillan and fifth-round draft choice Cameron McGrone.

The move linebacker group, on the other hand, features of three youngsters who were all selected on the second day of the draft. Josh Uche — another roster lock — and Anfernee Jennings joined the Patriots in the second and third rounds last year, with Winovich arriving in Round 3 a year earlier. The trio has been used on the defensive edge and off the ball and should thus be expected to compete for playing time in both areas. Offseason addition Harvey Langi also falls into this category.

The Patriots have one more off-the-ball linebacker on the roster who is not listed above: Brandon King. Given that King was exclusively used on special teams since arriving in New England in 2015, he should not be expected to compete for a traditional defensive role. That said, his presence could impact the chances of projected backup options Hall, McMillan and Langi.

The deciding factors

Positional versatility: One of the things that has made Dont’a Hightower such a productive player in New England’s scheme is his ability to wear multiple hats — from blitzing, to coverage, to run support, to lining up in different spots across the front seven, to calling plays, the veteran has done it all. Uche, Winovich and Jennings have shown some versatility as well so far in their careers, while New England also tried Bentley in various roles early during his 2018 rookie season. It would not be a surprise to see one of them earn some three-down linebacker looks alongside Hightower this year. Players’ abilities to perform on special teams could also work in their favor.

Play diagnosis: Effectively playing linebacker goes beyond accumulating tackles, it also includes being in the right spot and reacting properly to what is unfolding up front. New England has an experienced group at the position, so this should not be as big a problem as last year. However, the offseason acquisitions also need to show that they can get up to speed quickly in this area. The Patriots cannot afford to field linebackers who play with hesitation and are not consistently recognizing offensive looks or play calls.

Athletic skills: The off-the-ball linebacker position is a challenging one because it does not only require players to identify what is happening around them, but also to react. Given that their responsibilities range from playing downhill to dropping back into coverage, this means that New England’s linebackers will need to bring a combination of quickness, straight-line speed and strength to the table in order to successfully carry out their assignments.

Communication: Dont’a Hightower is not just a hyper-versatile member of New England’s front seven, he also has proven himself the main communicator at the heart of the team’s defense. With him gone, that role first went to Ja’Whaun Bentley and later safety Devin McCourty. Properly relaying defensive calls and making necessary adjustments will be key for off-the-ball linebackers. Hightower has shown that he can do it, the other players listed above have to do the same.

Long-term upside and cost: While Bill Belichick has repeatedly stated that his focus is on the here-and-now, a player’s long-term outlook and upside — especially when adding the contractual context — could also become a deciding factor when it comes to building a roster. Bentley, for example, is entering a contract season and has yet to show that he can consistently perform at a high level when trusted with a bigger role. Jennings is in a similar situation after a rocky rookie year, while low-cost options such as McMillan or McGrone could surprise.

The prediction

The Patriots added some impressive talent to their linebacker position during the offseason, with some of the new faces expected to play a role off the ball as well. Dont’a Hightower is the most prominent among them given his experience in the system, but edge defenders Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy should not be disregarded as well.

The two veterans are expected to be used primarily as outside linebackers in 2021, but they have some experience playing the hybrid move role as well. If need be, coaches will not hesitate to align them off the ball.

The main competition for regular off-the-ball snaps, however, are the eight players named above. Among them, Bentley has the most experience and should therefore be seen as a favorite to earn the top rotational role alongside primary off-the-ball defender Hightower. The other traditional inside linebackers — Terez Hall, Raekwon McMillan, Harvey Langi and Cameron McGrone — will have to compete for no more than two spots.

As a former second-round draft pick, McMillan appears to have the highest upside among them. However, Hall and Langi both have previous experience in the system. McGrone, meanwhile, is not expected to be much of a factor in 2021 after having torn his ACL in his final season at Michigan; he was placed on the non-football injury list earlier this week.

If none of them can distinguish himself, however, it would also not be shocking to see New England go with only Hightower and Bentley as its traditional off-the-ball linebackers. Having versatile youngsters such as Uche, Winovich and Jennings — and to a lesser degree Harvey Langi — in the fold allows you to do just that.

Uche is a lock to make the team after a solid rookie campaign and standout offseason performance. Winovich and Jennings are not in the same boat, but they too could be seen as valuable move players who could offer depth both on and off the ball.