One of the biggest points of emphasis for the New England Patriots this offseason is increasing the overall speed of the team. Inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said as much about the team’s defense back in February, and the club’s director of player personnel echoed those remarks on Friday.
Matt Groh mentioned that the Patriots would be “looking to get faster everywhere” across their roster during a video conference call. With the draft set to come up later this month, that process very much appears to be ongoing.
“There’s multiple ways to [increase team speed],” Groh said. “We did some of that last year, have worked on doing that here in free agency.”
The Patriots indeed made some recent investments to improve their team speed at multiple positions. They added wide receivers DeVante Parker and Nelson Agholor the last two offseasons, brought linebackers such as Mack Wilson, Raekwon McMillan and Cameron McGrone aboard, and a few weeks back signed former first-round draft selection Jabrill Peppers as a free agent.
The Peppers signing in particular was an intriguing move. Adding him to a safety group already featuring Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger, after all, allows the Patriots to further blur the lines between defensive back and linebacker.
“There’s going to be different players all across the league who are considered linebackers, whether they’re converting from a different position in college — safety to linebacker, what not,” Groh said.
“And that’s certainly one way to get speed on the field, is just using some of these guys differently. Just the caliber of athlete you can get — the size, the speed — these days. You can put these guys all over the place, and that’s certainly one way to increase the overall speed of the defense.”
Peppers, Phillips and Dugger are all projected to play prominent roles for the Patriots this offseason. In turn, they can help the team manufacture speed and mask some of the deficiencies it has at the off-the-ball linebacker position.
Those deficiencies are partially the result of New England struggling to adapt to recent developments at the position. With the college game trending towards smaller linebackers that are better equipped to handle coverage duties, the NFL has also started to prioritize speed over size.
Players such as Dont’a Hightower, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds and remains unsigned as a free agent, are therefore no longer what teams are necessarily looking for. The new generation of linebacker is smaller, but it offers more upside versus the pass.
Of the top linebackers in this year’s draft, few meet the Patriots’ usual size requirements. Instead, players such as Utah’s Devin Lloyd (6-foot-3, 237 pounds) or the Georgia pairing of Nakobe Dean (5-foot-11, 229 pounds) and Quay Walker (6-foot-4, 241 pounds) are projected as the best prospects available.
It remains to be seen whether or not any of those players will find their way to New England, but the Patriots are not ignorant to recent trends.
“It’s a different game than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago, and that player has also changed. There are not as many of those big linebackers,” Groh said. “They don’t exist. Colleges want them smaller because they have to be able to adapt to the college game. You can’t just create these guys out of thin air. With all the positions, it’s what the college game provides us. We have to just take what they are going to give us from year to year.
“One year there might be a couple of high-level Sam linebackers, another year there might not be any. So, if you’re looking to try to play with that kind of player you have to figure out a way to get that player. ... It’s really just as simple as: there are not a lot of those guys in college anymore, so you’re not going to see a lot of those guys in the NFL anymore.”
As a result, the Patriots will also be forced to change their ways. Recent moves such as not re-signing Hightower (yet), trading for Mack Wilson or picking up Jabrill Peppers suggest that they may have already started leaving their familiar path.