Health of Hightower Key in 2018
The Patriots head into training camp in just eight days and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we are breaking 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.
There was arguably no position that got more grief than the linebackers last year. Dont’a Hightower, Harvey Langi, and Shea McClellin were placed on IR. Kyle Van Noy was then put in the unenviable position of being asked to do too much. David Harris proved the Jets were right when they thought he was done. Elandon Roberts was boom or bust and proved to be a liability in coverage. Marquis Flowers played meaningful snaps on defense in sub-packages and played well. The team brought in veteran James Harrison at the end of the season and he was arguably the team’s best linebacker in the playoffs.
This spring the Patriots got back Hightower and Langi and concussions forced McClellin to retire. The drafted two linebackers, Ja’Whaun Bentley in the fifth round and Christian Sam in the 6th. We thought they’d address the position earlier in the draft but they passed.
So, with that in mind who are locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Roster Locks: Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy
The healthy return of Hightower is an absolute priority this spring, we wrote last year he was the one guy on defense they could not replace with anyone on the roster. 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. The question is, do they move him back to the inside or let him go back to the edge where they had him early last season.
Knowing that Hightower hasn’t been able to make it thru seasons unscathed is a huge question mark for the defense. The coaches saw how badly they struggled without him last year. How he’ll be used and how much, especially in the summer will bear watching.
Van Noy is a much better player when Hightower is on the field and they allow him to do what he does best. Which is a little bit of everything. He wore the green dot and became the leader of the defense on the front seven. While not a great athlete or a flashy player, he’s grown into a very dependable, versatile member of the defense. With Hightower back, look for Van Noy to have a very solid 2018.
And although it seems like the former first rounder has been in the league a long time, he’s just 27 years old and should be at the top of his game for the next few years.
Near Roster Locks: Marquis Flowers
Flowers prior to coming to the Patriots in 2017 had played a grand total of two (2) defensive snaps. Last year the Patriots used the athletic, STs maven as an outside linebacker who gained valuable experience as a stopper against athletic QBs and in coverage. He needs to get better in run support, but he had an overall pretty solid season in 2017.
We did our first 53-man Roster Projection after minicamp and left him off. On second thought, that was probably an oversight. With a good summer, he should be a near lock to secure a spot in 2018. The team gave him a new contract worth up to $2.55 million this spring.
On the Bubble: Elandon Roberts, Harvey Langi, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Christian Sam, Nicholas Grigsby, Brandon King (STs)
This group of six players is probably competing for four roster spots. Roberts was a starter for most of 2017. The slightly undersized LB from Houston is a downhill thumper in the running game. But at times his aggressiveness hurt him as he filled the wrong hole and was a liability in coverage. The Patriots were not good against the run in 2017, allowing an average of 4.7 yards per rush. Part of that issue, but certainly not all of it was the play of Roberts.
Langi was an intriguing UDFA, who the Patriots gave a good chunk of guaranteed money to sign with New England last spring. He made the team out of training camp and then tragedy struck. He and his wife were rear-ended in a serious car crash at a stop light in Foxboro in October and both ended up in the hospital. His injuries were severe enough to lose him for the rest of the season. Now he’s healthy and will have a lot of work to do to earn himself a spot on the roster this season. But he’s versatile and can play in several different positions.
Bentley is a big, thumper inside. He looks to be primarily an early down run-stuffer. Like Roberts, however, he’s a liability in coverage. But the fact that they drafted him shows, at least in some people’s mind, that they weren’t pleased with Roberts.
Sam was the OLB they drafted in the 6th round and is another intriguing guy. He’s strong and did 28 reps on the bench press at the NFL Combine. He’s got versatility and some explosiveness but doesn’t have a ton of experience. He may be an STs guy with an eye to 2019.
Grigsby is an ST’s guy and doesn’t offer much on defense. But he filled in well once he was signed after a slew of injuries hit the team in the middle of the season. He’s kind of a long shot to make the roster but with the Patriots emphasis of STs, he’ll be in the mix.
Ditto for Brandon King. King was a safety in college, but practices with the linebackers and is a core special teams, standout player. He’ll be a tough guy to knock from the roster given his special team’s expertise, despite him being a linebacker in name only.
Next up our training camp primer on the secondary…stay tuned.