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Patriots 2022 offseason preview: New England’s linebacker group might look drastically different next season

Related: Patriots offseason preview: New England’s defensive edge faces an uncertain future

Jacksonville Jaguars v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

Only two teams are left standing in the NFL postseason tournament, but the New England Patriots are not among them. They are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium after their wild card playoff loss in Buffalo.

It projects to be an interesting one for the Patriots. The team did go 10-7 in the regular season and returned to the playoffs, but it does face plenty of questions after its late-season collapse and with numerous starters in all three phases headed towards free agency. With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position at a time.

Today, we continue with the off-the-ball linebackers.

Ja’Whaun Bentley

Age: 25

Experience: 4

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 16.

2021 review: Coming off a disappointing 2020, Bentley made an impressive step forward in 2021 and appeared more confident attacking downhill and dropping into coverage. Throughout his fourth season in the league played an important role for New England as a starter-level off-the-ball linebacker.

Bentley appeared in 17 of 18 games, seeing most of his action on early downs and in short-yardage situations. He was on the field for 709 out of 1,135 possible snaps and ended the season with 111 tackles, three forced fumbles and a tackle. He did have his ups and downs, but the season as a whole was probably Bentley’s best since entering the league.

2022 preview: Headed towards free agency for the first time in his career, Bentley is no lock to return to the Patriots. While he did play a big role for their defense in 2021 and is still young at 25, his limited upside in passing situations might prompt the team to look elsewhere if push came to shove financially.

Jamie Collins Sr.

Age: 32

Experience: 9

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 16.

2021 review: Collins started the 2021 season with the Detroit Lions but was released in late September, opening the door for him to return to New England for a third time. The veteran did see regular action — appearing in 11 games he played 234 defensive snaps — and did have some promising moments: Collins registered a sack and an interception.

Collins’ versatility was also n display yet again, and he filled a hybrid role aligning both on and off the line of scrimmage. All in all, however, the Patriots used him more as a package player rather than the three-down defender he was during his first and second stints with the team.

2022 preview: Heading into free agency, Collins is in a similar situation as Ja’Whaun Bentley. The Patriots will likely be open to bringing him back on a cost-effective deal, but they will not overextend to retain a 32-year-old who played a comparatively minor role on their defense the previous season.

Terez Hall

Age: 25

Experience: 3

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Hall has a salary cap hit of $825,000 in 2022.

2021 review: Hall played eight games in 2020 but had to undergo ankle surgery in the offseason. As a result of the procedure, the 25-year-old had to sit out the entire season on the physically unable to perform list. He would have been eligible for activation in mid-October but never returned, ending his third NFL season on the sidelines.

2022 preview: Hall’s deal tolled into 2022, meaning that he remains under contract with the Patriots. However, he will be in a difficult spot heading into his fourth season as a pro: while the team might experience some high-profile departures at the off-the-ball linebacker position, the expectation is that Hall will not be the next man up. He might be able to earn a depth spot on the practice squad or even roster, though.

Dont’a Hightower

Age: 31

Experience: 10

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 16.

2021 review: Despite some rumors originating on social media, Hightower did not call it a career after his 2020 Covid-19 opt-out. Instead, the veteran returned to serve as a captain and starter-level off-the-ball linebacker for one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Missing one game each due to elbow and knee injuries, Hightower appeared in 16 out of 18 possible contests in his return. Playing 679 of 1,135 snaps, the veteran was used primarily on early downs alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley when New England moved to 4-2 fronts. He did have some very good moments in this role — Hightower was impressive against Carolina and Tennessee, for example — but he also showed some weaknesses, especially in the season-ending loss to the Bills.

2022 preview: Another off-the-ball linebacker headed for unrestricted free agency, Hightower will likely not generate the same interest as in 2017 when the Patriots re-signed him to a four-year, $35.5 million contract. That said, his experience and leadership skills could make him a popular target for teams looking to bolster its front-line defense.

New England obviously is such a team as well, which certainly makes a reunion possible. That said, the Patriots will likely tackle Hightower’s free agency just like Ja’Whaun Bentley’s and Jamie Collins’: they will not go above and beyond to bring the soon-to-be 32-year-old back, despite his contributions as a cornerstone player for their Dynasty 2.0.

Anfernee Jennings

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2023 season. Jennings has a salary cap hit of $1.23 million in 2022.

2021 review: Jennings saw action in 14 games as a rookie but he did not take the field as a sophomore. He was on-again, off-again during training camp, did not appear in any preseason games, and was placed on injured reserve ahead of roster cutdowns — rendering him ineligible to return to the team during the 2021 season.

2022 preview: Jennings had a rough rookie campaign and his second year as a Patriot did not go any better. If the 24-year-old is seen as a heir to potential free agency departee Ja’Whaun Bentley, he could still have a role on the team. That said, his outlook for 2022 is merely projection before he gets back onto the field and starts living up to his third-round label.

Brandon King

Age: 28

Experience: 7

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 16.

2021 review: After missing back-to-back years due to injury, King returned to the Patriots in 2021 to resume his role as a core special teamer. He went on to appear in 17 of a possible 18 games and register 10 kicking game tackles. Only three of his teammates saw more snaps in the kicking game over the course of the 2021 season than the former rookie free agent.

King furthermore played the first two defensive snaps of his career.

2022 preview: Entering unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, King is no lock to return to the Patriots in 2022. That said, his experience makes him a valuable target to be re-signed on another low-cost contract: with Matthew Slater not guaranteed to return to add one more season onto his legendary career, keeping King would allow New England some continuity on special teams.

Harvey Langi

Age: 29

Experience: 5

Contract status: Under contract through the 2023 season.

2021 review: After spending the last three years with the New York Jets, Langi returned to New England this offseason via a one-year contract. A four-unit special teamer and emergency linebacker, he appeared in the first seven of the Patriots’ games this season.

A sprained MCL suffered against his former team in Week 7, however, forced New England to send him to injured reserve. Langi did return to practice in December to kick open the 21-day return window, but he was eventually not activated.

2022 preview: Originally set to enter unrestricted free agency in March, Langi re-signed with the Patriots on a one-year deal in January. Further details are not yet known, but the belief is that the value of the contract will be near the veterans minimum for a player of Langi’s experience.

As a result, the 29-year-old will get another chance to carve out a role as an emergency linebacker and special teamer.

Cameron McGrone

Age: 21

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2024 season. McGrone has a salary cap hit of $885,038 in 2022.

2021 review: Coming off a torn ACL suffered during his final season at the University of Michigan, McGrone started the season on the non-football injury list. While the belief was that he would miss the entirety of his rookie campaign, the Patriots did have him return to practice in late November. He did earn some valuable practice time but was never activated to the 53-man roster, ending his first year in the NFL where it began: on the sidelines.

2022 preview: McGrone is an interesting player heading into 2022. The former fifth-round draft pick possess an intriguing skillset and could therefore be asked to help add some much needed speed to the Patriots’ defense. Obviously, speed alone does not make an NFL-caliber linebacker but McGrone is expected to get a chance to prove himself capable of carving out a role.

Raekwon McMillan

Age: 26

Experience: 5

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. McMillan has a salary cap hit of $1.09 million in 2022.

2021 review: The Patriots signed McMillan to a one-year contract in free agency, giving the former second-round draft pick another chance to get his career back on track. He appeared to be headed into a promising direction, but a torn ACL suffered in training camp ended his 2021 season before it even began.

2022 preview: New England apparently feels good about McMillan’s outlook for the 2022 season, signing him to a one-year extension in September. The 26-year-old will therefore get a chance to show that his solid performance as an off-the-ball defender during last year’s training camp was on fluke — and that he can take on a starter-level role if need be.

Jahlani Tavai

Age: 25

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Tavai has a salary cap hit of $1.09 million in 2022.

2021 review: After his release from the Lions during roster cutdowns, the Patriots added Tavai to their practice squad. The former second-round draft pick was elevated to the game-day roster twice before signing what was de facto a two-year deal.

All in all, the 25-year-old appeared in 14 games in his first season in New England. Tavai played only 61 defensive snaps but he did see regular action in the kicking game: he was on the field for 217 of 464 special teams snaps, registering eight tackles.

2022 preview: Another young but unproven member of the Patriots’ linebacker corps, Tavai is no lock to earn a job in 2022. That said, he will get a chance to compete for playing time on a defense that might look drastically different next season.