Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s first external addition, albeit a minor one, could be a sign of things to come for New England at the linebacker position.
According to a source, the Patriots agreed to trade pass-rusher Chase Winovich to the Cleveland Browns in a player-for-player swap sending linebacker Mack Wilson to the Pats.
The writing was on the wall for Winovich when he was a healthy inactive for New England’s lone playoff game a year ago against Buffalo. Despite 11 sacks in his first two seasons, the 2019 third-round pick didn’t develop into a well-rounded player on the edge to earn more playing time.
Winovich was a pin-your-ears-back situational rusher. On top of limitations against the run and holding his ground, there was some pushback about how he handled himself in the media.
Although it’s disappointing that a once-promising young edge rusher wasn’t a scheme or culture fit, the Patriots swapping Wino for Wilson could suggest a big-picture change on defense.
Wilson is a flier more than an immediate impact starter, but at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he fits the mold of a new-age NFL linebacker who can play in space and cover.
Following de facto co-defensive coordinator Jerod Mayo’s comments during Super Bowl week citing a need for athleticism and more playmakers on defense, a stylistic shift is coming.
“We’re going to look to get faster, more explosive, and put more playmakers on the field,” Mayo said.
Currently, Wilson joins a linebacker room that looks much different than in years past for Belichick, with Raekwon McMillan (242 pounds) and Cameron McGrone (234 pounds) also weighing in under their typical thresholds at the position.
In New England, we are used to bigger linebackers such as free agents Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley, who were listed at over 250 pounds on the Pats’ roster last season.
The reason for the heavy linebackers is that Bill Belichick’s base defense is a 3-4 odd front (okie), which typically leaves the guards uncovered for those bigger-backers to take on in the running game. If the idea is to have smaller, faster linebackers on the field, then schematic changes are coming to New England’s front seven.
After reviewing Wilson’s tape from the past two seasons with Cleveland, it’s apparent that this is a player who can match tight ends on underneath routes and carry them vertically downfield.
Here's a little of the coverage ability from new #Patriots LB Mack Wilson. Nice job playing the hands from an inside trail technique against the TE. Doesn't panic with his back to the QB, sees the TE hands go up, and gets his hand in there to knock the pass away. pic.twitter.com/Twbf23bwdU
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 15, 2022
Wilson made plays on the football by playing to his leverage in an inside trail technique and reacting to the tight end’s hands when the ball was arriving at the catch point.
The Alabama product also challenged tight ends in straight man coverage situations, recovering through contact nicely above to get back into the play and contest the catch.
Plus, he can mirror tight ends and make tackles in the flats to limit yards after the catch.
There are also flashes of him working through blocks and bringing the boom against the run working downhill, which gives you optimism that he can carve out an early-down role as well.
Going back to his days in Nick Saban’s defense, Wilson’s physical tools were never in question. The 24-year-old is an above-average athlete, a physical tackler, and projects as a core special teamer. But has often been up-and-down and plagued by inconsistency.
Although it’s important to keep the Wilson hype in check, this trade for Bill Belichick isn’t about the player he got in return for his own castoff who fell out of the circle of trust.
Instead, the Pats might have a new type at linebacker, dealing for a player like Wilson with a more athleticism-based skill set for the brand of football they’ll only see more of moving forward.