Perhaps no other positional grouping, on any NFL roster, was hit harder in the 2020 offseason than the New England Patriots linebackers. Mainstays such as Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all departed via free agency. Long time team captain Dont’a Hightower chose to opt out of the 2020 season, amidst concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result, New England’s depth chart at linebacker became problematic, as opposed to being a strength just one year prior. Incumbent Ja’Whaun Bentley would be called upon to assume the defensive play calling duties, previously held by Hightower. Despite his best efforts, Bentley found himself a bit overwhelmed in that department. He eventually relinquished the role to safety Devin McCourty. While rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings had promise, they were still…rookies. Ultimately, the lack of experience at the position led to a dismal output, at least by New England’s standards.
The Patriots were keenly aware that changes were needed heading into 2021. In that regard, the team has welcomed some new faces to the corps, while bringing back some which are both well-known and beloved in New England. After spending one season in Miami, Van Noy has returned to provide stability and productivity to the Pats 3-4 defensive schemes. Despite unsubstantiated rumors to the contrary, Hightower will also be back in the Foxboro fold for 2021. Whether it be his prowess against the run, or his ability to rush the quarterback in numerous blitzes off the edge, Hightower brings a football acumen and intellect that was sorely missed in New England last season.
Ja’Whaun Bentley and Chase Winovich headline the list of those that could have a significant impact in 2021. Winovich, especially, is facing an important season. The former Michigan Wolverine is a realistic candidate to take a prominent role at the position in 2021. However, he needs to get more consistent; especially when it comes to funneling run plays into the middle.
Matthew Judon, Raekwon McMillan, and Harvey Langi (for potentially his second tour of duty in New England) joined the team via free agency. Ronnie Perkins and Cameron McGrone were added via the 2021 NFL Draft. Perkins, a natural defensive end at Oklahoma, is expected to make the move to outside linebacker. Conversely, McGrone is still recovering from ACL surgery, and is likely to miss most (if not, all) of the 2021 season. Terez Hall and Tashawn Bower round out the depth chart on the roster.
Though many of the aforementioned players are expected to garner some attention during this season’s training camp, here are three players that might raise an eyebrow… or perhaps, catch a ‘sharp eye’ among the Patriots’ linebackers in 2021.
Many eyes will be on Matt Judon during training camp, and for good reason. The soon-to-be 29-year-old has the potential to be the most significant signing made by the Patriots in the offseason. He was used primarily as an outside linebacker during his time in Baltimore. Therefore, that is where he should be expected to spend the majority of his snaps in 2021. The former Raven has the versatility and adaptability to become the team’s number one player on the edge. At his best, Judon can keep runs from reaching the corner on early downs. He can also rush the quarterback in passing situations; two areas in which the Patriots struggled last year. He can also create favorable matchups from off-the-ball snaps, as well. That being said, Judon’s size — he is listed at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds — also makes him a candidate to play an off-the-ball role in the box. If the Patriots opt to use him that way, he would essentially become a hybrid move linebacker in the mold of Hightower.
In a 2020 season that was largely unkind to rookies, Uche was one of the few that made a positive impression. New England opted to use Uche both as an edge defender and an off-the-ball linebacker during his first season in the system. Due to his success in each role, the Pats are expected to deploy him similarly in 2021. Uche has both the athleticism and system savvy to play alongside veterans Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Chase Winovich. While it remains to be seen whether he will be used as a pass rush specialist or a traditional ‘move’ linebacker, he has the skillset to play on the line in most any defensive alignment, which the Patriots choose to utilize this season.
While several players are capable of playing off the ball in New England this year, Bentley’s leadership and experience make him a valuable piece to the Pats roster. Although he is at his best when deployed as an inside linebacker, Bentley’s communication skills and knowledge of the team’s package-specific roles will keep him on the field more often than not. With Hightower, Van Noy, and Uche likely to play on and off the line this year, the Patriots will have a great deal of options. As such, the team is likely to use Bentley in a more specialized role, which should accentuate his skill set. He should see a majority of his snaps in downhill run defense, while also dropping into coverage, and aiding the pass rush.