Pats ex-LB Willie McGinest gives NE High Marks
The Patriots defense in 2015 played well all season, this year they’re looking to make the jump from the ranks of the good to be among the best. And to go along with improved depth on the edge and the secondary is the play of the unit’s linebackers. NFL Network’s Willie McGinest was asked to rate the top five linebacker units in the league and not surprisingly, he gave the Patriots high marks.
McGinest waxed nostalgic about his time in New England, talking about the great teams and defenses from the early 2000s, of which he was a great part of and then spoke a bit about what makes this unit go, specifically Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Jamie Collins bring the element of freak athleticism to the linebacker position. (USA TODAY Images)
“More often than not … the linebacking units with the most production have exceptional group play, with two particular things in common: great preparation and communication. Alongside Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and several others throughout my years in New England, I felt that our linebacker group had these components when we helped the Patriots win three Super Bowl titles in 2001, 2003 and 2004,” he stated.
“We were always on the same page, whether we were watching film or playing on Sunday because we gave our full attention to preparation. We not only knew our own job but the position of every other person in the unit. We were moved around a lot and interchangeable, and that worked to our advantage. However, we could only play this way with good communication. When you’re lacking in that area, there is a lot of confusion, players are frequently a step slower and the defense gets beat on the play. If communication is smooth, players can simply react to what the offense is doing, because they know assignments and can diagnose formations quickly.”
This group brings a traditional, physical style of play. These guys are stout against the run — and they’re solid pass rushers, as well. All of these players feed off each other. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia puts his ‘backers in the right positions to be effective… Bill Belichick and Co. tend to move linebackers around and change their responsibilities each week, depending on the opponent. It worked with our group over a decade ago and it continues to work with the current players — specifically Hightower.
The Patriots return four players from last year’s team, Collins, Hightower, Jonathan Freeny, who was their top backup in 2015 as well as Kevin Snyder. Collins and Hightower are two of the most talented players at their position in the league and give NE a tremendous pair of starters. Each brings something different to the table. Collins the freak athleticism and big play ability, and Hightower the size, physicality and smarts to be the signal caller for the defense.
There has been a lot of turnover in the depth of the position with a number of players being let go including former Bear Jon Bostic who was traded to the Lions for a conditional 7th round pick and Tony Steward, the former Clemson and Buffalo Bill who was released just three weeks after being signed.
The team signed another former Bear, Shea McClellin to a three-year, $9.05 million-dollar contract this spring during free agency. McClellin possesses the traits that McGinest spoke about, he can move around being a standup outside or middle linebacker and can play with his hand in the dirt as an edge rusher.
He figures to be the top backup for the Patriots behind Collins and Hightower and in certain packages could move into a starting role when they go with three linebackers. The 6’3, 260-pound linebacker should become a valued role player for the Patriots defense this season. This becomes especially important when considering that both Collins and Hightower missed time last season with injuries.
The team also added the intriguing, uber-athletic Kamu Grugier-Hill during the draft. Although built more like a strong safety, he showed a propensity to fly around the field and be a sideline-to-sideline player with the ability to blitz off the edge.
Other depth players include run-stuffers Elandon Roberts, C.J. Johnson as well as former Rutgers player Snyder who was active for the AFC Championship Game over Bostic and special teams’ maven Ramon Humber.
The nine linebackers currently on the roster give the Patriots a talented, versatile group who will have to put the work in to gel, but have the capability to be a special group. They’ll have to decide who best fits what they want to do and then leave it to the coaches to put those players in the best position to be successful.
They should be fun to watch….just ask Willie Mac.