The New England Patriots are not oblivious to recent developments on the defensive side of the ball, as director of player personnel Matt Groh pointed out last week. Speaking about multiple issues in relation to team speed, Groh mentioned that the linebacker position of 2022 would not be the same it was “20, 30, 40 years ago.”
The Patriots have started to adapt a bit, recently adding athletically impressive players such as Mack Wilson, Raekwon McMillan and Cameron McGrone to the equation at the position. The team also signed versatile safety/linebacker hybrid Jabrill Peppers in free agency last month.
New England’s work at the position may not be done yet, though. The upcoming draft, after all, gives the team additional opportunities to add athleticism to its linebacker depth chart.
Name: Troy Andersen
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
School: Montana State (RS-Senior)
Opening day age: 23
2021 season: 15 games; 147 tackles, 12 tackles for loss; 2 sacks,
Size: 6034, 243 lbs, 32 1/8 arm, 77 3/8 wingspan, 9 1/4 hand
Expected round: 2nd-3rd
Strengths: Andersen is an athlete. On second thought, though, that does not do him justice: Andersen is an ATHLETE. Yeah, that looks better. The 23-year-old is in fact one of the top athletes in the entire draft, and as impressive a player from that perspective as any that has entered the league in recent memory. In fact, his relative athletic score is a maximum 10 out of 10 and among the highest the linebacker position has seen since 1987.
Andersen combines an NFL-ready frame — he measured at 6-foot-3, 243 pounds at the Scouting Combine — with the agility and burst you would expect from a former running back (he was still playing the position as of 2019). He offers true sideline-to-sideline range and is also quick to attack downhill as a pass rusher or versus the run.
His strength in the run game is how rangy he is. He’s not the strongest off-ball linebacker in the world but he moves so well. Has plenty of room to add some strength as well. pic.twitter.com/cngESV7t4D— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) March 8, 2022
Despite his lack of experience at linebacker, Andersen has shown some solid instincts in diagnosing play-action concepts and how to attack rush lanes. While he is still raw in that regard, his athletic skills allow him to quickly recover and make up for any mistakes; he is strong in pursuit and runs on a very hot motor.
First thing I look for in a player who converts positions is how comfortable they look.— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) March 8, 2022
Andersen looks the part. He has really good instincts for a guy who’s been doing it for 10 minutes and handles the physical part of the position well. pic.twitter.com/vTZxSY0BfB
Andersen’s off-the-field work has also earned him some praise, both in college and at the high school level. He was voted a team captain at Montana State twice.
Weaknesses: For all his impressive athleticism and sky-high potential, Andersen is a very raw player at this point in his development. That should not come as a surprise: he only started playing the linebacker position in 2019 and has a mere 25 games worth of experience. As a result, he has considerable room for growth in all aspects of playing the position — from rushing the passer, to playing the run, to dropping back into coverage.
Andersen struggled with consistency despite going up against FCS competition, and his tackling is proof of that. He won more with athleticism than form in 2021, which led to him being credited with 17 missed tackle attempts; Andersen still needs to learn how to properly wrap up. He also needs to do a better job of taking on blockers, finding advantage in leverage, and using his hands to disengage.
He has the short-area quickness to follow running backs and tight ends in coverage, and to spot-drop into underneath zones, but he has to stay more disciplined; Andersen easily gets manipulated by opposing quarterbacks. He did improve in this area but remains a work in progress, which makes for an uncertain projection at the next level: he might be better suited to play edge than as a traditional off-the-ball linebacker.
What would be his role? Andersen’s athleticism would allow the Patriots to use him all over their front seven, but his role most likely would be that of an off-the-ball Mike linebacker. Playing at the heart of the defense would allow him to use his elite range as a second-level defender both versus the run and the pass. His ceiling is that of a three-down linebacker, even though he might be better suited to play a clearly-defined role as a rookie while he is still learning the ins and outs of the position.
Does he have positional versatility? Not does Andersen offer the athletic skills to play both off the ball and on the edge if used as a linebacker, he also has experience on the other side of the ball. Only 25 of his 40 starts at Montana State actually came at linebacker: 11 came at quarterback, and four more at the running back position. Granted, he will focus on one thing at the NFL, but a team might explore his abilities in a linebacker/fullback-type role reminiscent of former Patriots defender Elandon Roberts.
Who is his competition? Andersen would be a lock to make the roster in 2022 if drafted in his expected range, but he would compete against the Patriots’ other off-the-ball personnel for playing time. That means he would go up against the likes of the aforementioned Mack Wilson, Raekwon McMillan and Cameron McGrone, as well as Ja’Whaun Bentley, Anfernee Jennings, Jahlani Tavai, Harvey Langi and Terez Hall.
Why the Patriots? Matt Groh said it himself, the linebacker position in the college game and by extension the NFL is changing. Andersen would give the Patriots a player who would fit the mold of a modern player at the position, while also being able to help out in other ways on special teams and maybe even offense. He also has far from reached his ceiling and will see plenty of opportunities to work on his current weaknesses.
Why not the Patriots? At the moment, the Patriots’ off-the-ball linebacker group is headed by Ja’Whaun Bentley, Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan. While the trio has potential, it might benefit from the addition of another player ready to contribute Day 1. Andersen would likely not be that player, unless used in a predefined role and as part of situational packages. As a result, New England might look at other linebacker options.
Verdict: Andersen has an intriguing set of tools and could very well develop into an NFL-caliber linebacker. The question is whether or not the Patriots will be willing to give him the time needed to reach is potential, or if they are instead looking for a ready-made player capable of taking over a sizable role as a rookie.