The Patriots were preparing for an overhaul at linebacker over the last few offseason, but not even Bill Belichick could’ve expected the shift to happen so quickly.
New England lost over 2,700 defensive snaps, 135 quarterback pressures, 122 run stops, and a wealth of knowledge and experience between free-agent departures and COVID-19 related opt-outs; the Boogeymen are gone.
In all, the Pats lost more production in free agency and via opt-outs than any other defense over the last two decades in one offseason, according to Football Outsiders.
With Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts either sitting out the season or playing elsewhere, it’s next man up for New England, starting with the last three draft classes.
Although it’s a drastic shift, Belichick, as always, was preparing for a new age at linebacker.
Belichick selected Ja’Whaun Bentley (2018 fifth round), Chase Winovich (2019 third round), Josh Uche (2020 second round), Anfernee Jennings (2020 third round), and Cassh Maluia (2020 sixth round) in the last three drafts.
Bentley (off-ball linebacker) and Winovich (edge defender) already proved useful in their roles in a limited capacity with workloads that will now dramatically increase this season.
The bigger question for the Patriots is how quickly the incoming rookie class can carve out roles and where exactly they’ll play in the defense?
In Belichick’s scheme, linebackers align in three primary locations: off the line, in-line, and at the end of the line, with the best system fits rotating between all three spots.
However, handling the assignments and mental challenges of playing both on and off the line of scrimmage is a major ask for younger players, even if their skill sets suggest they could succeed.
As Belichick stated in the past, it takes experienced and highly intelligent players such as Hightower, Van Noy, and Collins to process the game from drastically different perspectives.
As the Patriots navigate an unprecedented season, the next man up mentality that keeps the engine revving most years is up for the ultimate test in 2020.
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
The Pats second-round pick gets the “hybrid” label as someone who showed promise in all three primary locations in New England’s defense at the University of Michigan. Uche’s a natural edge rusher that generated 46 quarterback pressures in only 206 pass-rush snaps in his final collegiate season thanks to excellent first-step explosiveness and bend to run the arc. He also has the power and quickness to rush over the interior offensive line, where the Patriots love to blitz their linebackers to take advantage of mismatches with heavy-footed guards and centers. Plus, his athleticism and play speed allow him to be effective off the ball in coverage and make sideline-to-sideline plays. The only question mark with Uche is experience. His snaps were limited by injury and steep competition at Michigan, and he was mostly used as a situational pass rusher. From a physical standpoint, he has all the tools to develop into a difference-maker. But he needs to improve his processing speed and angles to be an effective inside linebacker against the run. In camp, we’ll monitor where Uche lines up initially to see if they’ll bring him along slowly in one specific role or let his versatility shine right away.
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
Copeland’s signing flew under-the-radar as the former Jets and Lions linebacker is mainly known for his special teams contributions. However, the 29-year-old is a jack of all trades that split time at edge defender and off the ball last season in New York, and is a good fit in New England. Belichick loves versatility, and along with playing 60% of the Jets’ special teams snaps a year ago, Copeland played eight different positions in Gregg Williams’s defense. The veteran is at his best playing at the end of the line, where he’s a serviceable schemed pass rusher and sets a firm edge against the run. But his coverage snaps at inside linebacker were also solid as he reacts quickly to play-action and has the athleticism to handle difficult zone drops. The Patriots often get the best out of players with Copeland’s skill set, and although he’s not on Van Noy’s level, his experience and versatility fit the mold of what KVN did for this defense.
Don't forget about Chase Winovich. 5.5 sacks and 23 quarterback pressures in just 234 pass-rush snaps as a rookie. Was already expected to take on a bigger role in his second season. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/ytXKzH2nRq
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) July 28, 2020
The Patriots need a big year out of Winovich, who is their best bet to replace the pass-rushing production that left in free agency along with Hightower. The Michigan product was getting to the quarterback at an impressive rate last season, tallying a QB pressure on 6.8 percent of his snaps. But most of his reps came in obvious passing situations where he could pin his ears back. Winovich can be a productive situational pass rusher who looked at home rushing off the edge in one-on-one situations and coming off picks from his teammates on schemed pressures. Effort and energy are never a concern with Wino, as he made a few of his patented tackles in the run game chasing ball carriers down from behind. However, if teams run in his direction, does he have the play strength to hold up at the point of attack despite his smaller stature? That’ll be the question for Winovich as he tries to develop into an every-down player. Right now, he can play the weak side edge spot and flow to the ball while rushing the passer effectively. If he can replicate his production from his rookie season in a larger sample size, the Pats will be thrilled.
#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
As the most experienced member of the linebacking core, Simon’s steady presence, and underrated production will be extremely important as the Pats transition away from the Boogeymen. Simon, pound-for-pound, is one of the strongest players on the team that’ll likely man the strongside edge defender spot that was often Van Noy’s responsibility last year. His play strength and ability to leverage his gap make him difficult to move in the running game. Plus, he has excellent instincts to anticipate blocks and pressure the quarterback regardless of the type of drop-back or pressure design. The eight-year vet isn’t the flashiest of players, but he executes the scheme exceptionally well and can move around the line of scrimmage thanks to his high football IQ. With Uche and Jennings developing behind him, Simon is an excellent bridge between the old guard and the new.
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
The Pats rookie projects into a role primarily on the line of scrimmage, similar to what we saw with Van Noy last season. At the end of the line, Jennings has the play strength and length to post up at the point of attack against the run plus solid hand technique to get off blocks. There’s not as much explosiveness to his game as Uche, but Jennings is fundamentally sound and played in a similar scheme at Alabama that should make for a quick transition. He also took some reps as a 4-3 defensive end, playing out of a three-point stance and two-point stance for Nick Saban. After bouncing back from a career-threatening injury, Jennings didn’t miss a beat in 2019 and was named first-team All-SEC. Although he’s thought of as more technician than an athlete, Jennings has a nice blend of both and should thrive in Belichick’s defense.
Rivers sack was a well-executed and timed “long” stunt by the #Patriots. Good penetration by KVN and Butler who occupies the center. That allows Rivers to wrap around both players and Darnold turtles. Loved watching Wise and Butler celebrate with him. pic.twitter.com/4Pyswusaj7
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 2, 2019
The 2017 third-round pick is on his last leg as a member of the Patriots. Rivers ended the year on injured reserve in two of his first three NFL seasons and was a part of a group of Patriots that were regulars at the facility this offseason. Work ethic isn’t the issue, nor is athleticism, but Rivers has failed to develop his pass-rushing toolbox beyond a somewhat effective speed-to-power rush. During camp, Rivers routinely loses to tackles that sit on his only rush move as he fails to go to his counter moves effectively. His main issue is timing up his pass-rush moves and using his hands as weapons to keep his body clean for fluid movements. In the last two drafts, the Pats selected three players that could take snaps at outside linebacker. The writing is on the wall for Rivers, but he has one last summer to carve out a role.
Calhoun earned a spot on the 53-man roster with a standout training camp last summer and carried that over to a full-time role on special teams during the season. Although his name wasn’t called much, Calhoun ended up playing 28 percent of the snaps on defense, along with his role on special teams. He has some inside-outside versatility, size, and athleticism to play on the edge for Belichick. During camp, Calhoun was impressive at converting his speed to power and using his length to get underneath tackles to generate push. He also had a decent cross-chop move going that won him his fair share of one-on-ones. A former third-round pick of the Raiders, Calhoun has talent, but he continues to get buried on the depth chart wherever he goes. He’ll be on the bubble once again this summer and will need to hold off younger options at the position.
The LSU product only played 63 defensive snaps in his first three NFL seasons, mainly with the Minnesota Vikings in 2018. The Patriots signed Bower to their practice squad last November and saw enough to keep him around. 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.
#Patriots film: thought Ja'Whaun Bentley had a strong game against the run. Good job staying patient and square to the line of scrimmage while scanning. Great job by Deatrich Wise to shut down the A-Gap. Bentley reads the back and meets Hyde in the hole. pic.twitter.com/44onpUxqe0
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 4, 2019
There’s an immense weight on the heavy-hitting shoulders of third-year linebacker, Ja’Whaun Bentley. After an injury cut his promising rookie season short, Bentley fought for playing time in 2019, but now will be a critical piece of New England’s run defense. With Dont’a Hightower opting out, Bentley is the tone-setter at the second level who needs to be a one-man wrecking crew in the Patriots’ fronts that will likely feature a heavy dosage of defensive backs in linebacker spots to handle coverage responsibilities and track mobile quarterbacks. 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 and pursuit angles. Along with taking on ball carriers in the run game, Bentley is the favorite to wear the green dot as the team’s primary play-caller on defense, a responsibility he took on at times in his first two seasons. The Pats probably won’t ask much of Bentley in coverage, but he needs to be New England’s physical presence as they lost a lot of pop with Hightower and Roberts out of the mix. He’s suddenly one of the most important players on the defense.
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 the entire 2019 season on the practice squad after spending training camp with the team as a rookie free agent. His best way onto the 53-man roster is on special teams, as the 230-pound linebacker has the play speed to chase down ball carriers in the open field. Hall is undersized for Belichick’s scheme but shows good toughness attacking blocks and understands how to create leverage points to fight off blockers. The Missouri product also has adequate speed, change of direction skills, and open-field tackling abilities to be a coverage specialist at linebacker. However, his tape last preseason shows that he gets pulled out of position too often and struggles to drop to depth as a zone defender. Hall has all the tools to be a core special teamer, though, and 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
Along with being a nominee to the all-names team, the Pats’ sixth-round pick was money for the Wyoming defense last season. Playing alongside Bengals third-round pick Logan Wilson, the two formed a formidable duo with Maluia catching Belichick’s eye while studying Wilson. 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. 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 can keep him clean at the second level, Maluia will chase down ball carriers all day long. There are no guarantees as a sixth-round pick in the NFL, so Maluia will need to catch on quickly this summer.
De’Jon Harris (UDFA)
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. Just like Roberts, Harris is a rigid mover in space that will lag behind in coverage. He racked up 100-plus tackles in each of the last three seasons at Arkansas with sound mental processing and physicality in the box. Although his athletic limitations are notable, Harris has a chance to make the roster as a backup to Bentley.