As the Patriots’ “boogeymen” were haunting opposing quarterbacks last season, they were also making themselves some money.
Former Pats linebackers Kyle Van Noy (Dolphins) and Jamie Collins (Lions) used big-time 2019 campaigns to cash in during free agency, and run-stuffer slash emergency fullback Elandon Roberts is also joining Van Noy in Miami.
The Patriots responded to those key departures by drafting three linebackers that can help fill those roles. But versatility is critical to playing in Bill Belichick’s defense, and it takes time to learn all of the responsibilities.
New England deploys it’s linebackers in three primary locations: off-ball (inside), at the end of the line (edge or outside), and in-line (over the guard or center), giving young and new players plenty to digest when they arrive in Foxboro.
As off-ball linebackers, defenders typically align over the bubble in the uncovered gap behind the Patriots’ odd fronts. The inside ‘backers’ primary responsibility against the run is to mirror ball carriers (scrape) from the A-gap out and meet them in the hole with two-gapping defensive linemen occupying blocks. They can also drop into underneath hook/curl zones, blitz from depth, and take on some man coverage responsibilities.
At outside linebacker or edge defender, the main job is to set the edge of the defense to prevent ball carriers from turning the corner for explosive runs. Along with their vital edge-setting responsibilities, outside linebackers are the Patriots’ most dangerous pass rushers as they work in tandem with the defensive line to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Occasionally, these outside linebackers will also drop into coverage.
Then, there’s an in-line alignment in the Patriots’ pass-rushing fronts where they’ll stand linebackers up over the interior offensive line. From there, linebackers use their athleticism and quickness against slower-footed interior linemen. They’ll also participate in a series of different stunts or picks to get free runners to the quarterback.
Some linebackers on New England’s roster play one specific role, such as Ja’Whaun Bentley, who played over 90 percent of his snaps at inside linebacker last season.
However, more versatile defenders are often tasked with playing both on and off the line of scrimmage. But not everyone can handle it mentally with Belichick saying last season, “instinctively, it’s more of a challenge. Seeing the game from on the line of scrimmage and seeing the game from off the line, it’s kind of like two different games. It’s hard for players to do both.”
The Patriots blur the lines between positions with their hybrid defenders, like Dont’a Hightower, who will rotate through all three primary locations depending on matchups.
Below, we’ll break out each linebacker into inside, outside, and hybrids and give a scouting report on those currently on the Patriots roster:
The Patriots perfected Hightower’s role thanks to his versatility, skill, and intelligence. Patriots fans know by now that “Boomtower” is always looking for a collision and usually comes out victorious in the trenches as an impact run defender. Last season, Hightower also led all linebackers with 277 pass-rush snaps that led to a position-best 33 quarterback pressures. By using him primarily as a pass rusher, Hightower, who at 260 pounds is at his best moving forward, only played 190 snaps in coverage in 2019 (second-fewest among qualified linebackers). Hightower also runs the front seven calling plays and making checks in the chess match with opposing quarterbacks. The Pats linebacker became a believer in speed training in recent years and is flying around the field better than ever at age 30.
Watching new #Patriots LB Brandon Copeland. Saw him do a lot of different things in coverage for the #Jets last year. Playing the deep hole in cover-2 here. As the deep hole, he must taking anything vertical in the MOF. Nice job reacting to play-action and sticking onto the seam. pic.twitter.com/PNnIc0LSsk
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 7, 2020
The Pats brought the versatile Copeland over from the Jets in free agency to replenish their veteran linebacker depth. Copeland played primarily on the line of scrimmage with New York, but he has the athleticism and open-field tackling abilities to play off the line as well. The Jets like to run inverted coverages where their back seven rotates into different positions in coverage to confuse opposing quarterbacks. Copeland’s athleticism allowed him to play some safety, in the box, and on the line in those schemes. There’s always room in New England for players that bring that kind of versatility, and Copeland also projects as a core special teamer.
Josh Uche has a lot of the same traits as Zack Baun but less buzz. Hybrid player at his best rushing the passer but can also play off the line.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 9, 2020
Part of Uche’s intrigue as a second-round pick is his experience at all three locations in the Patriots’ defense, but in camp, it’ll be interesting to see his primary role. Uche’s standout trait is his first-step explosiveness and flexibility as a pass rusher, either on the edge or standing up over the interior offensive line, where he tallied 46 quarterback pressures in only 206 pass-rush snaps in his final season at Michigan. He also has the range and coverage skills to play off the line where his 245-pound frame is a better fit at the pro level, but his instincts and block deconstruction are still a work in progress due to a lack of experience in that role. Uche struggled to find playing time early on in his collegiate career because of insane depth at the position for the Wolverines and nagging injuries. But his athletic profile and senior tape suggest that the arrow is pointing upward; Uche’s best football is ahead of him.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 8, 2019
After an injury-shortened rookie season and vying for playing time in his sophomore campaign, the time is now for Bentley. Both Collins and Roberts took snaps away from the 2018 fifth-round pick last season, but now the starting MIKE linebacker job is his to lose. Bentley is an old-school thumper that aggressively attacks the line of scrimmage and hunts down ball carriers. His footwork is crisp as he seldom false-steps and shows a great understanding of blocking schemes. In coverage, Bentley is better than expected due to decent instincts, but he shouldn’t cover in space often. Bentley is exactly what the Pats want, with the ideal body type to plug gaps and take on ball carriers in the hole as an early-down run-stuffer.
Going to write on the UDFAs before camp so a quick thread on LB Terez Hall. #Patriots gave him the second-most guaranteed money out of their UDFAs.
Start with him slipping the puller. Back side guard pulls. Good eye discipline to lock on the RB. Slips inside to make the tackle. pic.twitter.com/92bsqORDoR
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) July 17, 2019
Hall spent his rookie season on New England’s practice squad after signing with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent. His best way onto the 53-man roster is as a special teamer. At 230 pounds, he’s undersized, but has good pursuit speed and fits most systems as a WILL linebacker. His toughness attacking blocks and flexibility to create leverage points is commendable given his stature. Due to his athleticism, Hall also has some upside as a coverage linebacker, although he’s still developing in that role. The Missouri product has the speed, change of direction skills, and open-field tackling abilities to be a coverage specialist. But he gets pulled out of position too often and struggles dropping to depth as a zone defender. Hall has all the tools to be a core special teamer, though, and that, along with his athleticism, gives him an outside chance to make the team.
Cassh Maluia plays fast with great click and close. Ran a 4.53 at his pro day and it shows up on tape. Good lateral agility to slip blocks as well.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 26, 2020
The Patriots landed on Maluia in the sixth round after putting in extensive work on teammate Logan Wilson, with the two forming a formidable duo at Wyoming. Maluia’s play speed and instincts immediately pop on tape as he has sideline-to-sideline range, a never-ending motor, and the smarts to fly around intelligently. He also displays above-average ball skills and instincts to go along with 4.53 speed as a converted safety, making him a useful coverage player. Maluia has adequate lateral agility to slip blockers and beat them to spots to make plays against the run. However, he still struggles to defeat blocks with his hands, lacking the necessary technique and upper-body power to punch, separate, and shed. If you keep him clean, he’ll run ball carriers down all day long.
De’Jon Harris (undrafted)
Harris is a carbon copy of Elandon Roberts. The two are built the same as compact run-stuffers that can take on blocks and make plays against the run. He racked up 100-plus tackles in each of the last three seasons at Arkansas with sound mental processing and physicality in the box. But Harris is a rigid mover in space that will fall behind in coverage. Although his athletic limitations are notable, Harris has a real chance to make the roster as a backup to Bentley.
Kyahva Tezino (undrafted)
The San Diego State product is another compact run-stuffer with the functional strength to come downhill and play in the trenches. He’s always under control and balanced in scrape mode as he works gap-to-gap to mirror ball carriers and sees blocks develop nicely to diagnose running plays. Plus, he attacks the line of scrimmage with urgency both as a run defender and blitzer. Although subpar range and hip-tightness limit him in coverage, Tezino also sees things clearly in short zones. Between Tezino and Harris, we lean Harris, but both have skill sets that fit depth linebacker roles for the Patriots.
#Patriots film: there are a lot of plays that John Simon makes in the running game that don't show up on the stat sheet. #Bills run a sweep play with the left guard pulling. Simon stands him up behind the line and let's Chung make the tackle. Run blitz by Collins helps too. pic.twitter.com/45rjVIRar0
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 23, 2019
Simon is one of the unsung heroes of the defense as a sharp and fundamentally sound run defender that can also push the pocket. Few defenders on New England’s roster play with better instincts, intelligence, and gap discipline than Simon. He’s an extremely stout edge setter, and nobody will ever question his functional strength to force runs back inside. Plus, he can take on coverage responsibilities and get involved in schemed pressures due to his timing and feel for the game. Simon might not be a flashy player, but he’s what “do your job” is all about.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 16, 2019
If there were a Defensive Player of the Preseason award, Winovich would’ve won it last August. He took some time to get on the field due to New England’s depth at linebacker, but ended his rookie campaign with 5.5 sacks despite limited playing time and was a core contributor on special teams. Winovich’s motor and play speed are excellent, and he uses his height to play with natural leverage to dip underneath tackles. He was also effective as a wrap player on stunts and picks, where his pursuit and closing speed shined. The next step for the promising Michigan product is adding strength to his frame to be an every-down player. Winovich is a little undersized for early-down work at the end of the line, but his instincts and range are enticing tools to work with in run defense. There’s no reason he can’t be a three-down player in the NFL as a weak-side edge defender (opposite the tight end). But right now, Winovich is mostly a situational pass rusher.
The former third-round pick of the Raiders made the 2019 roster after an impressive summer defeating blocks as both a pass rusher and run defender. His finesse moves were effective in one-on-ones, and he showed great technique to play through blocks with his eyes on the ball carrier and shed with his hands. Calhoun only played 28 percent of the time on defense, mostly at the end of blowouts, but played 237 special teams snaps on five different units. New England’s special teams aces were quick to give Calhoun credit for his contributions in the kicking game, and he belongs on an NFL roster. The question is, can he become more dominant in a single facet defensively to keep his roster spot?
The clock is ticking on Derek Rivers’s career not only with the Patriots but in the NFL. Rivers has been a regular at the team facility even during the pandemic as he rehabs once again from another stint on injured reserve, making that two of three seasons spent on IR (torn ACL in 2017). Believers in the 2017 third-round pick will point to his athleticism and college production. Rivers was a standout at Youngstown State with a school-record 41 sacks. His get-off and functional strength to convert speed-to-power flash when he is healthy. But he still hasn’t fully developed a rush counter or adequate timing to make tackles uncomfortable and was stoned often in one-on-ones last summer. Plus, Rivers is prone to ducking his head into contact, which causes him to lose sight of ball carriers against the run. The baseline tools that made him the 83rd overall pick in the 2017 draft still exist. However, Rivers’ technique and feel for pass-rushing are holding him back.
The LSU product only played 63 defensive snaps in his first three NFL seasons, mainly with the Minnesota Vikings. The Patriots signed Bower to their practice squad last November and saw enough to keep him around on a futures deal this offseason. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Bower looks the part of a New England edge-setter with long arms and a sturdy build. He uses his hands pretty well and will fight off blockers with good functional strength at the point of attack. But Bower is a borderline NFL athlete that tested terribly across the board at the 2017 combine, and you can see him struggle to keep up on tape at times. He’s also a vanilla pass rusher, lacking a signature move or any rush counters to keep tackles off-balance. Bower is a longshot to make the roster.
Two plays that sum up what Alabama EDGE Afernee Jennings at his best:
1st play – times the snap perfectly, uses hands/length to soften edge and takes down Burrow
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 17, 2020
Jennings worked his way back to football after a scary injury to his lower leg in 2018. A prototypical Patriots edge defender, Jennings has an ideal body type (6-2, 256, 33-inch arms) and technique to eventually play the Kyle Van Noy role in the Patriots defense. He uses his long arms to separate from blockers by jabbing at tackles with accurate punches that help him set a firm edge. As a pass rusher, Jennings uses his length to soften the edge along with an excellent snap reaction to get a good jump off the ball, and there are flashes of great instincts in coverage as well. Jennings was a multi-year starter for Nick Saban in a similar scheme, hopefully making it a smooth transition, and plays with the necessary gap discipline and functional strength to be a solid player in the Patriots’ system.