The biggest hit the Patriots took in free agency besides quarterback was at the linebacker position.
Gone are the days of “the boogeymen” as three essential pieces, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts, are now joining forces with former Pats assistants in their new homes.
The Patriots will need to replace nearly 2,000 snaps at linebacker between the above trio, with Van Noy and Collins playing instrumental roles in their top-ranked defense a year ago.
After reviewing this year’s crop of linebackers, there are plenty of good prospects to rebuild the depth they had last season, and potentially two first-round options depending on the way things fall.
Below are the best fits at the position for the Pats in the upcoming NFL Draft:
Patrick Queen, LSU
Background: Queen has a very Belichickian story of perseverance and hard work. Sitting behind first-rounder Devin White, Queen struggled to get on the field for the Tigers in his first two seasons. He stuck it out in Baton Rouge, worked on his craft, and became the best player on the LSU defense this past season, according to head coach Ed Orgeron. As Oregeron pointed out, many players in Queen’s position would’ve taken the easy way out and transferred to a school where he’d be an instant-starter. But instead, Queen grinded, and eventually got his chance at what’s becoming a linebacker factory in Louisiana.
How He Wins: At 6-0, 229 pounds, Queen is built more like a jacked safety than a linebacker. Drafting a 230-pound linebacker would be a notable shift in philosophy for Belichick, but Queen’s skill set of electric play speed and processing make him one of the best defenders in the draft. As the plays above show, Queen processes blocking schemes at warp speed, reading the footwork of the interior offensive line to beat blockers and ball carriers to spots routinely. Queen’s athleticism also makes him a terrific coverage player and blitzer from off the line of scrimmage. We’ll believe that Belichick will take an undersized linebacker in the first round when we see it, but Queen is a day one starter with star potential.
Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma
Background: Unlike Queen, Murray was a three-year starter for the Sooners after earning Co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, producing the second he stepped foot on campus. He went on to have 176 solo tackles, 36.5 tackles for loss, and 9.5 sacks before declaring for the NFL draft following a stellar junior season. Murray needs to be more consistent with his block deconstruction and play recognition, but he tested in the 94th percentile and has plenty of bright spots on tape.
How He Wins: Murray fits the Pats’ mold more than Queen at 6-2, 241 pounds with tape at both inside linebacker and edge rusher. His sideline-to-sideline speed and closing burst are his calling cards, but for New England, his versatility makes him an option to replace Van Noy or Collins. On the play above, Murray starts as a standup edge rusher. He displays excellent lateral quickness and power on a long stunt, where he’s wrapping through the center of the line around penetration from two inside defenders. The Pats use stunt designs like that one all the time with their edge rushers, and Murray can rush the passer on passing downs as well as drop into coverage, making him a three-down player. But Murray can be slow to process things at times and looks lost against certain blocking schemes. He’ll need to improve in that regard to reach his ceiling.
DAY TWO TALENTS
Malik Harrison, Ohio State
Background: Dating back to High School, Harrison is a highly coveted athlete that starred as a quarterback at Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus. Harrison stayed in his hometown to play for the Buckeyes and originally was a wide receiver, but insane depth at the position forced him to move to linebacker. Now, he’s a top 50 prospect at inside linebacker on many boards after posting 75 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss in his senior season to go along with testing in the 77th percentile at the combine.
How He Wins: At 6-2, 247 pounds, Harrison fits the Patriots’ mold to a tee as a throwback inside linebacker. Harrison’s take-on technique and hand usage to stand up and shed blockers make him an extremely effective run defender. On the play above, Harrison meets fellow top 50 prospect, Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz, in the hole when Ruiz pulls from his center position. Harrison does well to initiate the first contact with an upward-leveraged strike, fire his hands into Ruiz’s chest, create separation, and make the play. Harrison’s movement skills aren’t on the same level as Queen and Murray, but he’s the best fit from a size, play-style perspective.
Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech
Background: Brooks is one of a few prospects that earned All-Conference mentions in all four seasons that he hunted running backs in the Red Raiders defense. In his senior season, Brooks was a second-team All-American and first-team all-Big 12 honoree after tallying 108 total tackles and 20 tackles for loss. Brooks might be more of a two-down linebacker at the pro level due to his coverage limitations, but his lateral quickness and mirroring skills make him a tackling machine in the running game.
How He Wins: As we mentioned, Brooks’s best trait is his ability to keep his pads square to the line of scrimmage and move laterally to read running backs and meet them in the hole. Brooks’s technique in the plays above is called “scraping,” which is perfect for a 3-4 defense like New England’s where the linebackers are staying clean thanks to the defensive linemen occupying blockers. He’s got great patience along with those movement skills, and with improved hand usage and block shedding, he’ll rack up tackles in run defense.
Logan Wilson, Wyoming
Background: A three-year team captain at Wyoming, Wilson fits the bill with A-plus character and work ethic along with four-down ability at the linebacker spot and on special teams. Wilson played mostly mike linebacker for the Cowboys but has above-average size to play any linebacker spot for an NFL team (6-2, 241 pounds). As a senior, Wilson was named third-team All-FCS after racking up 104 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss in the middle of Wyoming’s defense.
How He Wins: Wilson’s standout trait is his tackling technique, as he’s the best tackler in this class. As the sequence above shows, Wilson is excellent at recognizing developing plays, running through contact, and wrapping up ball carriers with an impressive closing burst. He’ll also pack a serious punch in hand-to-hand combat with climbing offensive linemen, and show terrific route recognition and ball skills as an underneath zone defender. If Wilson did these things at Alabama instead of Wyoming, he’d be a first-round pick.
DAY THREE TALENTS
Markus Bailey, Purdue
Background: Going off of his junior tape, Bailey is another old-school linebacker that has the play strength and football IQ to be productive despite his smaller stature. However, two major knee injuries in his four seasons at Purdue changed his entire evaluation. Bailey’s first knee injury came when he tore his ACL three games into his freshman season. He then had two productive years before his senior campaign was cut short due to an undisclosed knee issue. Bailey was a defensive captain for the Boilermakers last season and would’ve been a mid-round selection if healthy. But as they should, NFL teams will likely see him as a late-round draft choice or even a UDFA due to his injury history.
How He Wins: Bailey’s best quality as a run defender is his willingness to initiate the first contact and use his hands to hold off blockers. He goes into every confrontation with rapid-fire punches that land hard and keep him clean so he can make tackles on ball carriers. He also has above-average play recognition, which helps him arrive at spots before you’d expect with his average athleticism. If healthy, he’s a candidate to replace Elandon Roberts.
Daniel Bituli, Tennessee
Background: Bitulu was born in the Congo but moved to the United States when he was three years old and was a four-star recruit coming out of High School in Nashville. Bituli routinely got his defense lined up properly before the snap and got credit from coaches for his leadership on the field. Most teams will view Bitulu as a priority free agent because he’s too slow and needs to play in a phone booth to be successful. But the Patriots might covet his throwback style.
How He Wins: At 6-2, 246 pounds, Bitulu takes on blockers and plugs gaps with the aggression to stop ball carriers dead in their tracks. Although you’d like to see a faster downhill trigger, Bitulu does well to mirror running backs, follow them to their gaps, and doesn’t need help to bring down ball carriers. He’s limited due to his clunky movements, but he’s another late-round candidate to replace Roberts.