Healthy Hightower and Depth Are Key for 2017
The Patriots head into training camp at the end of next week and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. We’re on to the linebackers
Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. With a roster of 90 players and no cuts needed before the final 53-man roster cut down, there will be plenty of time for evaluation. And some serious decisions will have to be made to get to the 53-man limit at the end of camp this summer.
So next up is the Patriots Linebackers. This spring the Patriots lost LB/ST Barkevious Mingo during free agency but he barely made a dent in the playing time on defense last season. There were hopes that the Patriots could find a spot for the athletic Mingo to thrive but it didn’t pan out. However, the big news was that they brought back Dont’a Hightower after they let the veteran test free agency. Hightower’s re-signing with the team was huge. But then two weeks after he was released by the Jets, the Patriots signed the 33-year old David Harris who should make a nice impact with the team and add to the depth.
So, with that in mind who are locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Roster Locks: Dont’a Hightower, David Harris
The resigning of Hightower was a priority this spring, the Patriots best (only?) three down linebacker has a skill set that they just couldn’t replace with anyone that was on the roster at the time. Hightower is a run-stuffer inside who has shown the knack for being a good disruptor and blitzer on the edge as well as up the A-gaps.
Having Hightower back and healthy this summer was a huge plus for the team. I’d look for the Patriots to limit his reps this summer and in preseason to preserve him for the season, especially the end of the season stretch and into January.
Harris was a no-brainer signing as he still has plenty left in the tank and he can still be a very effective two-down linebacker. He’s a very smart, instinctive football player who Bill Belichick has always had a lot of respect for. He can easily spell Hightower on early downs, play beside him in a 3-4 type situation and be a tremendous role model for the younger players.
I equated his signing with that of Junior Seau a few years ago. He’s not quite the player he was a few seasons ago, but with the system him limiting his playing time and putting him in situations that he’s in the best to position to succeed should prolong his career.
Near Roster Locks: Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin
The Patriots brought these two players in last season and each were former high draft picks that didn’t work out and needed a fresh start. The team used them mainly as sub-package linebackers and they each carved out good roles.
Van Noy was a third down specialist who displayed the ability to blitz from the edge and cover the running backs in the flat. He’s got good athleticism and seemed to pick up the defense quickly. With a full offseason in the system this summer, he should be ready to be more effective this season.
McClellin is a versatile guy and has done whatever the team has asked him to do. He’s been a third down edge rusher, a coverage linebacker, played in the middle and has filled in as a defensive end with his hand in the dirt. He is a good special teams’ player and will be hard to unseat.
On the Bubble: Elandon Roberts, Harvey Langi, Jonathan Freeny
The Patriots loved what they saw in Roberts at times last season. Although slightly undersized, he’s a downhill thumper in run support and showed great instinctive play and explosion. But he’s also shown that he can be a liability in coverage. That’s something that he’ll have to work on and improve this season.
Langi is a very intriguing prospect. If you want to see what the Patriots saw in him ignore his 2016 tape when his college coaches moved him to DE as an edge rusher. Watch the 2015 tape with him as a linebacker. The Patriots paid him a guaranteed $115,000, the most paid to a UDFA this spring. He has the kind of athleticism that can be impactful on Day 1 as a special teams’ guy. That may be his ticket to the roster.
Freeny is another Belichick favorite who was worked his way from being a STs standout to a Week 1 starter last season before an injury landed him on IR. Freeny counts only $1.7 million against the cap this season but could find himself replaced by one or both of the younger guys. Something is going to have to give here. All three and probably two will not make the cut. This will be one of those “tough decisions” that Belichick and the staff will have to make.
Outside Looking in… Long Shots: Trevor Bates, Brooks Ellis
Bates is a guy who may be just done in by numbers. The Colts drafted him in the 7th round of the 2016 NFL Draft but was cut loose before the Patriots signed him to the practice squad on November 7. He’s got very good athleticism to be a standout STs performer and the team liked him enough to give him a raise on the PS from $6900 a week to $18,000. He was a Practice Player of the Week for NE four times.
Ellis is a long shot but had one of the best 3-Cone Drill times at the NFL Scouting Combine this spring. The very athletic 6’2, 247-pound linebacker was a captain and a finalist for the Campbell Trophy as an Academic All-American. He’s versatile and can play all three linebacker positions as well as be a standout STs player. And he’s studying to be an Orthopedic Surgeon. I see a nickname of “Bones” for this kid…
Next up our training camp primer on the secondary…stay tuned.