For years, Dont’a Hightower was the leader of the New England Patriots’ linebacker group and defensive front as a whole. A first-round draft pick in 2012 out of Alabama, he developed into a team captain and cornerstone of three Super Bowl-winning teams — earning the nickname Mr. February along the way.
Despite his accolades, Hightower’s future is uncertain. He remains unsigned as an unrestricted free agent, and there is no guarantee he will even continue his career at age 32. But even if he does return to the Patriots, there is no question the team will need to rebuild its linebacker group — Hightower would not be a long-term solution even if he adds another one or two seasons to his already impressive résumé.
A look at the current group of off-the-ball linebackers illustrates this.
- Ja’Whaun Bentley: 25 | Signed through 2023
- Mack Wilson: 24 | Signed through 2022
- Raekwon McMillan: 26 | Signed through 2022
- Cameron McGrone: 21 | Signed through 2024
- Anfernee Jennings: 24 | Signed through 2023
- Jahlani Tavai: 25 | Signed through 2022
- Harvey Langi: 29 | Signed through 2022
- Terez Hall: 25 | Signed through 2022
The Patriots have some solid depth at linebacker at the moment, but the group as a whole has plenty of questions. Bentley is a rather one-dimensional player; Wilson was just added via trade; McMillan and McGrone are coming off torn ACLs; Jennings was a no-show last season; Tavai saw limited action in his first year in New England; Langi is primarily a special teamer; Hall missed all of last season on the PUP list.
In theory, the group could turn into a serviceable one without any additional players brought aboard. However, it would not be a surprise if the Patriots decided to invest in a draft class that is rather deep at linebacker.
(Just for clarity’s sake: players are listed alphabetically within their respective groups)
Devin Lloyd, Utah: While some mock drafts have Lloyd end up with the Patriots at No. 21, him remaining on the board that long would be a major surprise. After all, he is the top off-ball linebacker available in this year’s draft and a legitimate do-it-all prospect. He would be a tremendous fit in New England, but the team would likely have to move up to get him.
Targets at No. 21
Nakobe Dean, Georgia: If Dean was 6-foot-3, 250 pounds he would never make it out of the top-10. At 5-foot-11, 229 pounds, however, he will probably be available late in Round 1. Nonetheless, his combination of speed, range and high football IQ is enticing and certainly worthy a first-round pick. The question is whether or not his size limitations will be a disqualifier for the Patriots. | Full draft profile
Day 2 targets
Troy Andersen, Montana State: Andersen combines an NFL-ready frame — he stands at 6-foot-3, 243 pounds — with the agility and burst you would expect from a former running back. He has as high a ceiling as any linebacker in the draft this year, but he is still raw after only started playing the position in 2019. | Full draft profile
Brian Asamoah, Oklahoma: At 6-foot-0, 226 pounds, Asamoah is another undersized linebacker prospect. That said, his sideline-to-sideline range is elite and he can be a factor in the passing game from Day 1.
Leo Chenal, Wisconsin: If the Patriots want to replace Dont’a Hightower with a younger version, Leo Chenal should be their guy. The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder is a force when coming downhill and has the quick processor to become a disruptive presence against the run and pass. If he can improve his coverage he can become a true three-down defender.
Christian Harris, Alabama: Harris is built like a modern day linebacker, and has the sideline-to-sideline range to make an impact in the passing game. His tackling needs to improve a lot to hold up against NFL-level competition, but he is a modern linebacker through and through. | Full draft profile
Chad Muma, Wyoming: Muma might not be the most impressive athlete the linebacker position has to offer, but he has some good instincts and a knack for the football. He would have some immediate starter potential in the middle of the Patriots’ defense.
Channing Tindall, Georgia: While Nakobe Dean is getting a lot of first-round hype, he is not the only member of the Bulldogs’ outstanding defense available in this year’s draft. Channing Tindall is projected to come off the board on Day 2 as well, and he too offers an explosive athletic profile and the ability to grow into a three-down starting linebacker.
Quay Walker, Georgia: Walker, meanwhile, could very well become the third linebacker drafted this year behind Lloyd and Dean. A well-built defender at 6-foot-4, 241 pounds, he is a physical second-level defender capable of leaving his mark as a run defender right away. He did not do a lot of coverage work, but his potential is legitimate. | Full draft profile
Day 3 targets/Free agency targets
Damone Clark, LSU: Clark’s talent is tremendous and under normal circumstances he would have been a Day 2 pick at worst. However, he underwent spinal fusion surgery in March to repair a herniated disc and is expected to miss his entire rookie season as a result. New England has never shied away from taking fliers on rehabbing players, but the medicals will ultimately decide what Clark’s future looks like.
Micah McFadden, Indiana: A physical downhill defender, McFadden’s game has shades of former Patriot Elandon Roberts. His limitations versus the pass, however, will likely limit his ceiling and make him a late-round selection.
Jeremiah Moon, Florida: Moon’s extensive injury history is worrisome, but he has all the tools you would want from a modern NFL linebacker. If he can stay healthy — a big if given that three of his six college seasons ended on the sidelines — he has starter-level upside.
Malcolm Rodriguez, Oklahoma State: Calling him “Discount Nakobe Dean” is not doing him justice, but Rodriguez does have a similar skillset as the Georgia star. He is undersized at 5-foot-11, 232 pounds but has the instincts and physicality to carve out a role at the NFL level.
Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin: A three-year starter at Wisconsin, Sanborn has some Leo Chenal to his game: he is most comfortable attacking downhill, and his coverage remains a work in progress. His upside is lower than Chenal’s but he can certainly be a serviceable early-down player.
Brandon Smith, Penn State: Smith is a freaky athlete that combines size (6-3, 250) with fluidity as a mover. So, why is he a projected Day 3 pick? Because he has a long way to go before being ready for the NFL. Smith is a dice roll. | Full draft profile
Given the distribution of talent at linebacker across the draft’s seven rounds, New England might be willing to wait until Day 2 to address the position — even if that means missing out on high-end talent such as Devin Lloyd or Nakobe Dean. However, prospects such as Leo Chenal or Chad Muma seem like natural fits in New England’s defense. Others such as Troy Andersen or Channing Tindall are longer-term investments with enticing upside.
Either way, the Patriots selecting a linebacker at one point in the draft seems like a relatively safe bet.