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Patriots draft preview 2023: Plenty of options to upgrade edge, linebacker spots

New England re-signed all of its linebackers from last season.

Oregon v Georgia Photo by Paul Abell/Getty Images

One of the New England Patriots biggest under-the-radar needs in this year’s NFL Draft is along the edge.

While Josh Uche is coming off a career season he is entering a contract year, along with Anfernee Jennings. With Matthew Judon also entering his age-31 season, New England will likely dip its toes into an extremely deep and talented edge class — especially as they have drafted the position inside the top-100 in four of the last six drafts.

They may not be as eager when it comes to adding to the second level. New England seems quite conformable with their current linebacking group of Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai, Raekwon McMillan, and Mack Wilson Sr.

In what is widely considered a weaker linebacker class, it’s logical to predict New England won't add to the group until the later rounds, if they even add to it at all.

If they do add at either position, here are some names who project to be on their radar.

Patriots positional draft preview: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Offensive line | Defensive line

Round 1 edge rushers

Starting outside, New England has shown much interest in some of the top edge prospects in this year’s draft. Throughout the pre-draft process they have hosted Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson, Georgia’s Nolan Smith, and Iowa’s Luka Van Ness on top-30 visits. All three are projected first-round picks.

Tyree Wilson (Texas Tech): Wilson is projected to go the highest among that group, likely in the top-10 out of New England’s range. A monster along the outside with a 84 1/2-inch wingspan, 35 5/8-inch arms, and dominant play strength, Wilson can be used as both a defensive end and outside linebacker. If the Patriots truly believe in his Pro Bowl potential, perhaps they make an aggressive move up the board.

Nolan Smith (Georgia): More in New England’s range is Georgia’s Nolan Smith. The former Bulldog lit up the Combine with a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, 1.52 10-yard split, and 41.5-inch vertical — all the best among front-seven defenders in Indianapolis. The athleticism stands out on film. He had limited production as a pass rusher (11.5 sacks in 46 career games) but is stronger in the run game. Between the talent, combine performance, and scheme he played in at school Smith checks many Patriots’ boxes.

Lukas Van Ness (Iowa): The last rusher projected to come off the board in round one is Van Ness. He recorded 13.5 total sacks the last two seasons for Iowa showcasing his length and power ability. Van Ness is a fiery competitor as a former hockey player and while he had starting level playing time, he did not start a game for the Hawkeyes during his collegiate career.

Top-50 edge rushers

Myles Murphy (Clemson): Murphy leads off the second-tier of edge rushers and could even threaten for a late first-round selection. Murphy was a three-year starter at Clemson who recorded 17.5 sacks in 38 games. He is still raw as a rusher but has natural size, length, and an overall frame. New England met with Murphy at his Pro Day and recently held him on a Top-30 visit.

B.J. Ojualri (LSU): Ojulari fits a similar mold as the rushers New England has preferred in recent years. He has impressive get-off speed, is bendy around tackles, and has strong build up speed to chase down ball carries. While Orjualri recorded just 16.5 sacks as a two-year starter at LSU, he did combine for 103 pressures the past two years (4.3 per game). He was also a team captain for the Tigers and regarded as a high character individual.

Will McDonald IV (Iowa State): McDonald IV leaves school as a two-time First-Team All-Big 12 selectee and one-time First-Team All-American. He is a natural athlete with ideal length at the position. What is not ideal, however, is his frame at just 6-foot-3, 239 pounds.

Keion White (Georgia Tech): A surprise name to watch for New England within the top-50 could be Georgia Tech’s Keion White, who is scheduled to be in Kansas City on Day 1 of the draft (eye balls emoji). A walk-on at Old Dominion as a tight-end, White is a very natural athlete at his size. He is still developing his pass rush repertoire but flashed strong production in his two years as a healthy starter on the defensive side of the ball (one at ODU, one at GT) with 33 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in 24 games.

Felix Anudike-Uzomah (Kansas State): Anudike-Uzomah is another prospect to watch in this range. He is a physical, power rusher at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds and recorded 19.5 sacks over the last two years. However, Anudike-Uzomah has just average quickness and struggles to turn the corner. His work in the run game is also inconsistent.

Top-50 inside linebackers

Jack Campbell (Iowa): At the off-ball linebacker spot, Campbell fits the typical size mold New England likes at the position at 6-foot-5, 249 pounds. But, unlike most of the thumpers at the position, Campbell has elite range posting a 9.98 relative athletic score (his three-cone and short shuttle were best among all linebackers at the Combine). The two-time team captain is known for his intelligence, toughness, and tenacious effort at the position.

Trenton Simpson (Clemson): Another Clemson defender who New England saw work at the Tigers’ Pro Day is Trenton Simpson. Unlike Campbell, Simpson’s build (6-2, 235) falls in line with the new era of linebackers. He flashes elite speed and play range in the second level, even being used as a slot corner at times in college. Despite his smaller frame, Simpson had no issues establishing a physical presence coming downhill. He could have some early struggles due to processing issues but his speed and skillset are certainly intriguing.

Drew Sanders (Arkansas): Sanders will challenge Campbell and Simpson to be the first linebacker off the board. A former five-star recruit who originally committed to Alabama, Sanders is a do-it-all linebacker with good length and speed. He was one of the best linebackers in college football last season (103 tackles, 9.5 sacks) in his first-year as a starter. Sanders will have to improve his tackling at the next level after recording 22 missed tackles last season.

Rest of Day 2 edge rushers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL NOV 05 Clemson at Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Isaiah Foskey (Notre Dame): Foskey in each of the last two years in sacks (11.0 both seasons) and leaves campus as the Irish’s all-time sacks leader. Despite his pass rushing success, Foskey will need a more diverse attack at the next level. But, he does have good length and is strong off the ball. A team-captain at Notre Dame, Foskey’s hustle and pursuit are noticeable. He also blocked four punts in college.

Derick Hall (Auburn): Hall was a three-year starter and team captain for the Tigers. He has a strong frame and is a powerful rusher - also setting a physical edge in the run game. He does not offer much explosiveness or flexibility as a rusher.

Isaiah McGuire (Missouri): Sticking in the SEC, Missouri’s Isaiah McGuire has a sturdy frame at 6-foot-4, 269 pounds and 34.5 inch arms. He uses that arm length at the point of attack and in the run game where he recorded 31.0 tackles for loss over 35 games the last three seasons. He was also voted a team captain his senior season.

Zach Harrison (Ohio State): Harrison is a physical freak with the longest arms (36 1/4 inches) and wingspan (85 1/2 inches) among all defensive lineman in this draft. He pairs it all with impressive explosiveness as a physical presence up front.

Nick Herbig (Wisconsin): Herbig could benefit from adding power to his game. He was a three-year starter for the Badgers who plays with a high motor and lives in opponents backfields (21 sacks, 36.0 TFL in 31 career games).

Rest of Day 2 inside linebackers

Henry To’oTo’o (Alabama) and DeMarvion Overshown (Texas) both saw their draft stocks fall with down 2022 seasons. Both are undersized linebackers, Overshown being one of the best athletes at the position as a converted safety. To’oTo’o is not the same type of athlete but is known for his football smarts after calling Nick Saban Crimson Tide’s defense.

Daiyan Henley (Nevada): Henley was a two-star high school quarterback recruit and committed to Nevada as an “athlete.” He was moved to wide receiver before finding a home at linebacker in 2020. His inexperience shows, but so does his athleticism from sideline-to-sideline. The Senior Bowl invitee and Washington State transfer was also a talented special teamer.

Dorian Williams (Tulane): Williams is another plus athlete at the position with strong range. He lacks the size New England prefers but is still physical in the run game and led his team in tackles in two of the past three seasons. Williams was also a core special teamer throughout his collegiate career.

Early Day 3 edge rushers

K.J. Henry (Clemson): Henry has some Patriots’ qualities as a Senior Bowl player, former five-star recruit, and high character individual. He sets a sturdy edge and led Clemson last season with 53 quarterback pressures.

Andre Carter (Army): Carter also falls under the Patriots’ umbrella. A 14.5 sack season in ’21 had Carter as a once projected high draft pick, but a down ’22 season and poor Senior Bowl/Combine showing likely has dropped him into Day 3. Still, at 6-foot-6, 256 pounds he has some intriguing potential.

Byron Young (Tennessee): Young was a former JUCO player before transferring to Tennessee. With the Vols, he was a two-year starter and led the team in sacks in both seasons. Young has his issues in the run game but could be a valuable sub-rusher early in his career.

Viliami Fehoko (San Jose State): New England used a Top-30 visit to meet with Fehoko. A four-year starter who recorded a whopping 47.0 tackles for loss in his career. He does not have an elite frame or athleticism but is technically sound along the edge.

Yasir Abdullah (Louisville): The Patriots got to work with Abdullah at the Shrine Bowl. He’s a high-motored edge defender who closed his Louisville career eighth in career sacks (23.5) and second in tackles for loss (43). In a similar department, Nick Hampton is an explosive athlete as a former track star. His pass-rushing ability has drawn comparisons to Josh Uche.

Dylan Horton (TCU): Horton played numerous spots across the Horned Frogs defensive line as a three-year starter. His sack production spiked the past season — including a four-sack game in the College Football Playoffs against Michigan — but he was a high-quality run defender throughout his college career.

Early Day 3 inside linebackers

Owen Pappoe (Auburn): Pappoe is also undersize by New England’s standards but is another incredible athlete at the position. Pappoe topped all linebacker at the Combine with a 4.39 40-yard dash and 1.50 10-yard split. He also should be a staple on special teams units.

Ivan Pace Jr. (Cincinnati): Pace Jr. was a standout in Mobile as the Senior Bowl’s National team’s Linebacker Practice Player-of-Week. He’s a tad undersized at the position (5-10, 231) but always seems to be around the ball. Pace piled up 262 tackles and 34.5 TFLs the past two seasons.

Noah Sewell (Oregon): Sewell is a typical Patriots thumper of a linebacker. At 6-foot-1, 246 pounds he’s physical coming down hill but has limitations in man coverage.

Late Day 3 edge rushers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Missouri at Florida Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Robert Beal (Georgia): Players from Kirby Smart’s Georgia defense should always be on the Patriots’ radar. Former four-star recruit Robert Beal was only a part time player (10 career starts) on a stacked roster, but has promise as a player. He has the tools with his speed/size profile but is raw all-around.

Brenton Cox Jr. (Florida): New England got a first hand look at a questionable prospect at the Shrine Bowl: Cox Jr. showcased his talent with 32 tackles for loss in 33 games for the Gators. But, he was dismissed from the team in ’22 after already having been dismissed from Georgia in August 2019. His talent is NFL-caliber and after getting extensive meeting time with him in Vegas, New England should have a strong feel on his situation.

Other Shrine Bowl players include Habakkuk Baldonado (Pittsburgh) and B.J. Thompson (Stephen F. Austin). Baldonado is a physical presence outside while Thompson is more of a speed rusher. Both players stood out in the East-West Shrine Bowl game. Jose Ramirez of Eastern Michigan was also a Shrine Bowl invitee.

Truman Jones (Harvard) is an athletic rusher who attended New England’s local Pro Day. Jonah Tavai (San Diego State), Jahlani’s brother, could also pique their interest. He played up and down the Aztecs D-line and was Pro Football Focus’ fifth rated defensive lineman last season (out of 857).

Late Day 3 inside linebackers

The Patriots got to work with former college teammates Drake Thomas (North Carolina State) and Isaiah Moore (North Carolina State) at the Shrine Bowl. They reportedly left Vegas impressed with both players and particularly “couldn’t stop raving” about Moore throughout the week.

Mo Diabate (Utah): Diabate also was out in Vegas with the Patriots’ coaching staff. New England staff’s reportedly saw value in the Utah transfer due to his versatility and ability to rush off the edge. Lastly in the Shrine Bowl department was Anfernee Orji (Vanderbilt), who had a strong week and has more of the downhill style they gravitate towards.

Bumper Pool (Arkansas): Pool may be worth a late-round flier for more than just his name. While his athletic profile does not jump off the page he ends his five-year college career as a two-time All-SEC linebacker and Arkansas’ all-time leading tackler. Production like that, specifically in the SEC, likely will have Bill Belichick’s attention.

Andrew Farmer (Lane): New England’s first reported individual meeting of the offseason came with Farmer, who they met with at the HBCU Bowl. He has plus size at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds as a potential late Day 3/UDFA option.

SirVocea Dennis (Pittsburgh): Dennis is a smaller linebacker but was a do-it all player for Pittsburgh. He was PFF’s seventh graded linebacker last season (out of 789) and played lacrosse in high school.