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Patriots pick a high-upside linebacker in Todd McShay’s mock draft 3.0

Related: NFL Scouting Combine results: Saturday shows that finding defensive speed should be easy for the Patriots

University of Georgia vs University of Alabama, 2021 CFP National Championship Set Number: X163902 TK1

With Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins all headed to unrestricted free agency, the New England Patriots might have to rebuild their linebacker corps this offseason. The best — and cheapest — way to do that is via the draft, and this year’s version offers some intriguing talent at the position.

Among the top linebackers available is Georgia’s Nakobe Dean. Despite measuring at only 5-foot-11, 229 pounds at the Scouting Combine, he projects as a first-round selection this year. The Patriots might be a potential landing spot.

If the latest mock draft by ESPN’s Todd McShay turns out to be accurate, that is exactly what will happen.

21. New England Patriots

Nakobe Dean, ILB, Georgia

This guy is perfect for the Patriots. With Dont’a Hightower hitting free agency, there’s a spot open in the middle of that defense, too. New England’s passing defense was stout in the 2021, but its 4.5 yards allowed per run tied for the eighth worst in the league. Dean has an incredible motor, fighting through blocks and making tackles in space. He has range both against the run and in coverage, and he can even contribute as a pass-rusher. I absolutely love watching his tape. Dean could be Bill Belichick’s leader on defense, and his relentlessness and exceptional instincts will make him an instant-impact player.

The winner of the 2021 Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker, Dean combines an intriguing athletic skillset with a high football IQ and physical edge. Helping Georgia to a national championship earlier this year, he projects to come off the board in the middle of the first round — exactly where the Patriots are drafting.

Dean is a prototypical modern NFL linebacker, but his size might be a problem for the Patriots: they traditionally prefer bigger off-the-ball players who can attack downhill and plug gaps versus the run. Dean has shown he is able to do that at the college level, but his success against NFL competition is a question mark.

If the Patriots want to break with tradition and feel comfortable with the experiment, however, Dean might be a good fit.