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Patriots 2023 offseason preview: Off-the-ball linebacker is a low-key priority

Our position-by-position offseason analysis continues at linebacker.

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NFL: New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Two teams are left standing in the NFL playoffs, but the New England Patriots are not among them. Finishing the regular season with an 8-9 record, they failed to qualify for the tournament and are already on to the offseason.

It projects to be an interesting one for the team. On the one hand, it is coming off a disappointing year that saw especially the offense fall short of its expectations — a fact that has already led to some changes on the coaching staff. On the other hand, however, the Patriots are among the league leaders in offseason resources and already have plenty of young building-block-type players under contract.

With all that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time by looking at each position individually. Today, we continue things at off-the-ball linebacker.

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Offensive tackle | Interior offensive line | Interior defensive line | Defensive edge | Off-the-ball linebacker | Cornerback | Safety | Special teams

Final 2022 depth chart

Ja’Whaun Bentley: Entering unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, Bentley returned to New England on a two-year, $6 million contract — a good deal for the team given the prominent role he would play in 2022. Bentley, after all, served as the No. 1 off-the-ball linebacker in lieu of long-time team captain Dont’a Hightower. He ended up producing the best season of his career: playing 80.3 percent of defensive snaps over 17 games, Bentley registered 125 tackles, three sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Jahlani Tavai: Tavai making the 53-man roster out of training camp was a minor surprise. After being used primarily in a special teams role early on, he developed into Bentley’s primary running mate. As such, Tavai played 570 snaps (50.4%) and finished with 69 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Additionally, he notched six tackles in his 330 kicking game snaps (70.2%).

Raekwon McMillan: McMillan’s first year back from a torn ACL had its ups and downs. He started the year as a top option at the off-ball linebacker spot, but saw his playing time decrease drastically over the following weeks. That said, he did play some solid football in a rotational role on defense and became a core special teamer. All in all, McMillan ended the year playing 250 snaps on defense (22.1%) and 277 in the kicking game (60.6%). He also returned a fumble for a touchdown in Week 14 against Arizona.

Mack Wilson Sr.: New England acquired Wilson as part of the trade that sent Chase Winovich to Cleveland last offseason, and he did have some solid moments. That said, he did not play a single defensive snap over the final five games of the year and was exclusively used on special teams down the stretch. In total, Wilson was on the field for 236 defensive snaps (20.8%) and 284 on special teams (62.1%). He had 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.

Jamie Collins Sr. (PS): The veteran linebacker returned to the Patriots in October via a practice squad contract. He was elevated to the game-day roster on three separate occasions, finishing the year with a combined 61 snaps between defense and special teams. Collins also registered a pair of tackles.

Calvin Munson (PS): Starting the season on Miami’s injured reserve list, Munson found his way to New England’s practice squad in mid-October. His third stint with the club looked a lot like his first two, with him seeing minimal action: Munson was elevated once, playing 14 special teams snaps in the regular season finale in Buffalo.

Terez Hall (PS): Almost eight months after releasing him, the Patriots brought Hall back to their practice squad. The late-December addition did not see any game action over the final three weeks of the season.

Position assessment

Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai both had career years, and proved to be a pretty solid front. They may not have some of the athleticism of other players on the roster, but they played extremely well, especially at the end of the season.

Both Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson were inconsistent this season, on the other hand, even though they did bring some high-end athletic skill to the table. With both of them as free agents, however, there are no guarantees about whether or not they’ll be back. Calvin Munson and Terez Hall, meanwhile, were signed to futures contracts recently; both project as little more than depth pieces.

Offseason preview

The Patriots have two guys who have played well on the inside in Bentley and Tavai, and both should be a part of the plan moving forward.

However, the team could really use someone with some more athleticism as well. That answer could be Mack Wilson and/or Raekwon McMillan, but it might be more likely that New England brings someone else in, whether it’s a rookie or veteran. Either way, the position is a low-key priority for the Patriots this offseason especially with only Tavai being signed beyond this upcoming season.

With that said, here is what the Patriots’ off-ball linebacker group looks like heading into 2023:

  • Ja’Whaun Bentley: $5.05 million salary cap hit | Signed through 2023
  • Jahlani Tavai: $2.26 million salary cap hit | Signed through 2024
  • Calvin Munson: $1.01 million salary cap hit | Signed through 2023
  • Terez Hall: $940,000 salary cap hit | Signed through 2023

Additionally, one outside player has been signed to a futures contract since the end of the season:

  • Olakunle Fatukasi: $870,000 salary cap hit | Signed through 2023

The group also has a pair of free agents:

  • Raekwon McMillan: Unrestricted free agent
  • Mack Wilson Sr.: Unrestricted free agent

Jamie Collins, who was with the Patriots’ practice squad in 2022, was not signed to a futures contract after the season. He is already an unrestricted free agent.

Level of concern: High