The cornerback position and interior offensive line were atop the list of needs for the New England Patriots entering the 2022 NFL Draft, with the off-the-ball linebacker spot not far behind. The first two have indeed been addressed on Days 1 and 2, but the Patriots have yet to pick a linebacker.
In fact, they have been in position to pick projected fits multiple times but instead opted to either go with a different player or make a trade. First-round picks Quay Walker and Devin Lloyd were available at No. 21, for example, but New England moved down the board to No. 29; Walker was picked by Green Bay at 22, Lloyd by Jacksonville five selections later (following a peculiar trade-up by the team).
The further down the list you go, the more such instances you can find. And so, entering the third and final day of the draft, the Patriots have not added to their off-the-ball linebacker group yet.
If director of player personnel Matt Groh is to be believed, however, that is very much by design: he and the team appear to be quite happy with the current linebacker situation.
“Really excited about that group,” he said during his post-draft press conference on Friday night. “Excited to see Cam McGrone was able to get on the field a little bit last year, excited to see him be in an expanded role. He’s kind of an additional draft pick. You can kind of put him along there with the three guys that we’ve been able to add here today along with some of the other guys from last year.
“That all kind of counts to getting younger, getting faster, being a tough team. So being able to add Mack Wilson — I know a lot was going on in free agency, and it was a trade and not a signing — but I think that was a really important part of adding some depth to the linebacking corps along with being able to get Ja’Whaun Bentley back. Really excited to have him and his experience, as well.”
At the moment, Bentley, Wilson, McGrone and Raekwon McMillan are projected as the top four at the position. All of them come with their fair share of questions, though, which led to linebacker being seen as a need in the pre-draft process.
Bentley, who returned on a two-year deal, is the most experienced player of the group. However, he is primarily early-down player and as such a “throwback” compared to the likes of Wilson, McGrone and McMillan.
Those three, meanwhile, are all unproven in the system and in the case of McGrone and McMillan coming off serious injury. McGrone tore his ACL during his final season at Michigan in 2020, while McMillan tore his last training camp. Both are expected ready for 2022 — in fact, McGrone appeared in practice last December — but they are no safe projections to turn into starter-level players.
Meanwhile, long-time veterans Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins remain unsigned in free agency. Bringing one of them back to bolster the group still appears to be in play, even though the last few rounds of the draft might impact the club’s decision-making process.
Either way, the team sees itself in a good position even without top-tier prospects added over the last two days.
“I think we’ve got a lot of names there and a lot of experience, and mix in some youth,” Groh said. “I think it’s a good group.”