The New England Patriots transformed their roster during the 2021 offseason, and the off-the-ball linebacker spot was no exception. While not seeing the same high-profile additions such as quarterback, wide receiver, tight end or the defensive edge, the group was noticeably improved by the moves that were made.
The first and most important was the return of team captain Dont’a Hightower off the Covid-19 opt-out list. Hightower being back allowed Ja’Whaun Bentley — New England’s LB1 the previous season — to be used more to his strengths as an early-down defender rather than an every-down linebacker; Bentley was arguably the team’s most improved player in 2021.
The Patriots furthermore invested in free agents Jamie Collins and Raekwon McMillan, and also drafted Cameron McGrone in the fifth round. Injuries prevented McMillan and McGrone from having an impact, but they project as important players moving forward.
With that said, let’s take a look at New England’s current off-the-ball linebacker group:
- Raekwon McMillan
- Anfernee Jennings
- Cameron McGrone
- Harvey Langi
- Terez Hall
- Jahlani Tavai
A look at the six players under contract beyond March 16 shows that the Patriots need to make some major investments this offseason. Whether that means re-signing some of the in-house free agents or adding outside reinforcements remains to be seen; heading into the season with Raekwon McMillan, Anfernee Jennings and Cameron McGrone as the top three is far from ideal, however.
Before analyzing some potential players to bolster that group, a look at the Patriots’ free agents-to-be.
- Dont’a Hightower: Unrestricted free agent | Free agency profile
- Ja’Whaun Bentley: Unrestricted free agent | Free agency profile
- Jamie Collins Sr.: Unrestricted free agent | Free agency profile
- Brandon King: Unrestricted free agent | Free agency profile
Whereas Hightower, Bentley and Collins were the top three off-the-ball options for the Patriots alongside since-released move option Kyle Van Noy, Brandon King once again served as a key member of the team’s kicking game operation. Losing all four of them in free agency would put considerable pressure on the depth behind them.
But even if they depart, not all is lost for New England. Not only does this year’s draft offer considerable talent in a realistic range, the class of free agents is also one worth keeping an eye one.
Anthony Barr (Void): Barr’s contract will void at the start of the new league year, potentially giving him an opportunity to test free agency and leave Minnesota after eight seasons with the team. Capable of lining up both in the box and on the line off scrimmage, the 29-year-old is still a disruptive player when attacking downhill versus the run or the pass.
Vince Biegel (UFA): While not a household name, Biegel was a productive player for the Miami Dolphins playing in a Patriots-like scheme under head coach Brian Flores. However, an Achilles injury suffered in 2020 impacted him the last two years. When fully healthy, he has some potential as an early-down linebacker.
De’Vondre Campbell (UFA): A first-team All-Pro in 2021, Campbell brings considerable experience and upside as a starting-caliber linebacker to the table. The 28-year-old will not come cheap, but he would project as a solid addition and a natural target for a New England defense trying to rebuild the position group.
Rashaan Evans (UFA): The Alabama product was seen as a potential target for the Patriots in the first round of the 2018 draft, but the Tennessee Titans selected him one pick before he team was on the clock. Now, Evans will likely be available as well. He did have some issues with consistency during hit time in Tennessee, but might benefit from a change of scenery — especially if it involves a team running a familiar scheme.
Zaire Franklin (UFA): Franklin may be undersized compared to the Patriots’ prototype at linebacker — he is listed at 6-foot-0, 235 pounds — but he is a solid player nonetheless. While probably not an every-down defender, he can have some value on early downs and versus the run.
Jordan Hicks (SFA): Like other players on this list, Hicks would not count against the Patriots’ compensatory draft picks formula if signed: he has already been released by the Arizona Cardinals for salary cap purposes. The 29-year-old did have a solid season, though, and can be a productive player in the right situation.
Josey Jewell (UFA): Jewell missed most of 2021 with a pectoral injury, but he is an intriguing player nonetheless. The 27-year-old is solid versus the run and as a second-level blitzer, and offers plenty of experience after having played 49 games in four seasons with the Denver Broncos.
Alexander Johnson (UFA): One year after tendering him at the second-round level, the Denver Broncos are at risk of losing Johnson in unrestricted free agency. If he hits the market, the Patriots might just be taking a look at him: Johnson, who missed most of the 2021 season due to a torn pectoral, is a strong run defender and combines youth, experience and intriguing size.
Cory Littleton (SFA): Littleton will be released by the Las Vegas Raiders soon, which means that he too will not count against the compensatory formula if brought in. Offering good size and a versatile skillset, he likely will not break the bank coming off what was an up-and-down season.
Nicholas Morrow (UFA): While a bit on the smaller side at 6-foot-0, 225 pounds, Morrow was a productive player for the Raiders before missing all of 2021 due to a foot injury. When healthy, though, he can be a cost-effective depth option.
Elandon Roberts (UFA): Roberts started his career with the Patriots, primarily serving as an early-down defender as well as a part-time fullback. Now set to enter the open market again after a two-year stint in Miami, New England might view him as a cheap replacement in case Ja’Whaun Bentley leaves in free agency.
Leighton Vander Esch (UFA): Whether it as Shea McClellin or Barkevious Mingo, the Patriots have always had a soft spot in their heart for former first-round linebackers unable to live up to their potential. Vander Esch falls into this category, hitting the open market after four up-and-down seasons in Dallas. Neither his talent nor his athleticism can be denied, however, making him a potential target for New England.
Bobby Wagner (SFA): One of the best linebackers of his era was released by the Seattle Seahawks earlier this week. Wagner should find a robust market even at age 31, which might make it difficult for the Patriots to bring him aboard without sacrifices elsewhere. That said, his potential in the team’s system would be intriguing.
Anthony Walker Jr. (UFA): The former Colt had a good first season in Cleveland, and enters the market with some momentum on his side. Walker Jr. has shown a knack for finding the football — either by making tackles or creating turnovers — and has been solid in coverage.
Kyzir White (UFA): A positionally flexible player who has played both on and off the line throughout his four years with the Los Angeles Chargers, White is entering free agency off the most productive season of his career. Appearing in all 17 games, he had 144 total tackles as well as two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a sack.
The Patriots’ limited resources makes swinging big in free agency unlikely, but as can be seen there are a lot of players available who will likely not break the bank. Whether it is former first-round picks (Rashaan Evans, Leighton Vander Esch) or quality depth players (Zaire Franklin, Nicholas Morrow), this year’s free agents class gives the team multiple options to upgrade its linebacker room.
Realistically, New England will try to retain at least one of Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Seeing the club add some outside options to build a solid foundation heading towards the draft would not be a surprise either, though.