With free agents Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins still unaccounted for, and with Kyle Van Noy released in a cost-cutting move, the New England Patriots appear to be in the process of rebuilding their linebacker corps. With the game changing and an ever greater emphasis on the passing game, a different type of player is emerging — one that is smaller than those three and therefore more flexible versus the pass.
The Patriots have some candidates already on their roster to play such a role. Mack Wilson was acquired via trade earlier in the offseason, while Raekwon McMillan and Cameron McGrone have the skillset to carve out roles as nickel linebackers as well. If the they are fully committed to rebuilding their linebacker group, however, there is a prospect in the 2022 draft who looks like a perfect fit.
Name: Nakobe Dean
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
School: Georgia (Junior)
Opening day age: 21
2021 season: 15 games; 72 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss; 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles; 2 interceptions (1 touchdown)
Size: 5112, 229 lbs, 31 7/8 arm, 76 1/8 wingspan, 9 1/8 hand
Expected round: Late 1st
Strengths: Dean is a heat-seeking missile. He constantly flies around the ball and has serious sideline-to-sideline range at the second level; he is an impact player both in coverage against running backs or tight ends and when used to defend perimeter runs. His fluid lower body and ability to find the direct angles to the ball-carrier allow him to make plays when attacking downhill or dropping back into coverage zones or man-to-man responsibilities.
You cannot get away from Nakobe Dean pic.twitter.com/d43yyorEWn— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) April 21, 2022
Dean is not only playing fast, he also has the processor to follow suit. He quickly recognizes play designs, and has outstanding read-and-react skills as well an instinctual feel for the game and how opposing offenses operate. His timing on blitzes is superb, and he hardly is caught out of position because of his quick recovery and smooth hips; he opens and closes without wasting any motion which allows him to redirect in an instant.
Additionally, Dean has proven himself a durable player at a physical position. He started all 25 of Georgia’s games since being elevated to the starter level ahead of his sophomore campaign. He also showed some encouraging growth between his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, getting better each year. Furthermore, Dean has been praised as a smart player and team leader; he was voted a team captain last year.
Weaknesses: No evaluation of Dean would be complete without talking about his size. It’s simple: at 5-foot-11, 229 pounds he is too small to become an every-down linebacker. As a result of those limitations, he has a harder time taking on blocks or getting open once engaged. He needs to win with technique, speed and angles in order to consistently get by bigger and stronger blockers in front of him both at the line of scrimmage and in space.
His lack of length also is a factor in coverage. Tight ends in particular can out-reach him when matched up one-on-one. He can take them down quickly or close in, but will not out-jump a 6-foot-5 player on a jump ball over the middle.
What would be his role? Dean was used primarily off the ball at Georgia, and he will be employed in a similar fashion at the next level. In New England, he would either serve as a weakside linebacker in 4-2 fronts or the lone off-the-ball defender in 5-1 alignments. His size restrictions limit his value on early downs and running plays, but he would be a core member of nickel and dime looks — possibly as the on-field signal caller — as well as the Patriots’ kick coverage units.
Does he have positional versatility? While his athleticism is enticing, Dean’s versatility is limited. 87.8 percent of his defensive snaps in 2021, for example, came off the ball; for comparison, he played on the line of scrimmage only 4.2 percent of the time. He does have some scheme flexibility, though, and can successfully play in both zone and man coverage shells.
Who is his competition? Depending on how the Patriots plan to use him, Dean’s competition for playing time — his roster spot would not be in question — would primarily be the passing game personnel at the linebacker and safety spots; specifically Mack Wilson, Raekwon McMillan, Cameron McGrone and Jabrill Peppers. The highest-upside option among them, Dean would see regular action from early on, though.
Why the Patriots? New England’s director of player personnel Matt Groh said it himself, the linebacker position is changing. Dean is the modern-day prototype, and as such would help the team’s defense address two of its biggest needs: a lack of speed and a lack of youth at the second level. Dean may not fit conventional size standards used by the Patriots, but his abilities as a playmaker coming from one of the top programs in the country are without question.
Why not the Patriots? The Patriots have had some smaller linebackers before, but Dean is in a different category. He has the skillset of, and is built like, a safety. Therein might lie a problem from New England’s point of view: the team has multiple safety/linebacker hybrids on its roster already — Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers — and does not really have a need for another player of that skillset.
Verdict: Dean is a popular mock draft pick for the Patriots, and for good reason. He checks plenty of boxes and is an exciting player to watch who would help the team adapt its linebacker corps to the challenges of the pro game in 2022. However, there are some serious questions about his fit on a defense that traditionally has preferred its linebackers on the bigger side to help against the run. Dean offers little in that area, and projects to make his impact primarily on passing downs. It would not be too big a surprise if New England decided that such a skillset is not worth a first-round investment, unless the team is indeed willing to fully transform the position group.