Now to the fun part the Linebackers and Edge players. This should be an exciting group this season with the veteran Free Agent signings, the return of Donta Hightower, and the emergence of young players that were forced into action earlier than expected last season.
Dont’a Hightower – Is the glue that holds this Defensive Team together. Hightower missed all of last season, opting out because of COVID. At the age of 31, Hightower is one of the more highly decorated players on the Patriots. The 9-year veteran (not counting 2020), and the former 1st round pick (2012) out of Alabama, is the prototypical inside linebacker at 6’ 3” 260 lbs. He has won 3 Super Bowl rings, 2 National Championships at Alabama, and twice been a Pro-Bowl selection. His strip-sack in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons help spark that epic comeback from a 25 point deficit to win the SB in overtime. His position may say ILB, but Hightower is likely to line up anywhere up and down the line. He has tremendous pass-rush ability and his return should bolster the weak pass rush numbers of the team last year. Injuries have been a concern, as he has only played all 16 games once in his career. The big question is whether the year off has affected him positively or negatively. Will he be rusty, a shade slower or will he be rejuvenated with a year away from the constant pounding. Pre-season should tell us a lot. More than any other player, Hightower’s return is a huge key to this team.
Matt Judon – The prize of Free Agency on the Defensive side was Matt Judon. I had him as a top priority signing. He was a Pro-Bowl selection the last two years and has established himself as a premier edge rusher. He has 34.5 sacks in his 5-year career. A 2016 5th round selection out of DII Grand Valley State, was the 3rd edge rusher selected by the Ravens that year. He had to wait his turn, and eventually replace Elvis Dumervil when he left for Free Agency. He will turn 29 in August which is old for Free Agent that just signed a 4-year contract. The Ravens Franchise Tagged Judon last year preventing him from achieving Free Agent status. He received $16M under the guaranteed Franchise Tag. Combine that with the 4-year $56M he got from the Pats and he is sitting pretty financially. His size, at 6’3” 275 lbs is excellent for holding the edge against sweeps and his 4.73 40 yard dash at the combine ranked 5th for the position. 2019 was his best year for sacks with 9.5. On this team, he will not be singled out for double team blocks because there will be so many players that can get after the QB. I expect a big year from Judon.
Kyle Van Noy – I don’t know what happened in Miami, but going from team Captain to released in a year is astonishing. The Free Agent contract he signed was for 4 years, $51M with$30M guaranteed. Van Noy is a talker and sometimes that gets him into trouble. He was one of the leaders on the team in 2019 that was spouting off about their 8-0 start to the season and gave the defensive team the nickname Baba Yaga after the John Wick character “The Boogeyman”. Unfortunately, the Slavic myth is actually an old witch. The Patriot’s defense in the 2nd half turned into an old witch rather than the much-feared Boogeyman. Van Noy’s career was turned around when he was acquired from the Lions in 2016, with the Lions adding a 2017 7th round selection and the Patriots just giving up a 2017 6th. The former Detroit 2nd round selection, had 6 sacks last season, which is slightly behind his career-best 6.5 sacks he had the year before. His overall tackle total last season was 69 which was much lower than his two best seasons for the Pats with 73 and 92 tackles respectively in 2017 and 2018. At 6’3” 250 lbs, his size is perfect for either ILB or Outside edge. I am hoping that Kyle can return to his best performance under the Patriots coaching staff and player utilization.
Josh Uche – Reports from OTA’s and the Mini-Camp have stated that Uche has been one of the quickest players in camp. One report called him unstoppable. That’s a good thing heading into his second year. However, there are plenty of negatives that need to be addressed! The Patriots traded up last year to select Uche in the 2nd round. At 6’1.2” (not the 6’3” advertised on the Patriots.com roster), the 245 lbs linebacker was never a full-time player at Michigan. As a senior, he was 2nd in TFL and topped the team in sacks with 8.5. He was healthiest as a Senior but nagging injuries slowed his progress. Uche was inactive for the first 2 games and then on IR for next 4 games. In College, he had a Meniscus Tear and a bad virus which limited his development. I expect Uche to make that jump in his second year especially since he received playing time his 1st year. Last season for the Pats he appeared in 9 games with 1 start. His lone sack was against the Ravens and had 9 tackles on the season. He must have learned the playbook to earn that playing time. I expect that Uche will be a key contributor this season especially on 3rd down.
Chase Winowich – Will Winowich have a hard time making the team? Need to watch him closely in training camp. He missed time during OTAs and all of Mini Camp. Speculation is that he is recovering from an injury. Winowich saw his playing time diminish as the season went on last season. As a core member of the #1 ranked special teams units, Winowich has played in all 16 games each of the last two seasons. His playing time on defense dwindled to 3rd down pass rush specialist. He had a difficult time holding the edge against the run. Each of the past two seasons, Winowich had 5.5 sacks. A fan favorite with his long flowing blonde locks, fans like seeing him fly towards the QB? Will he get that opportunity this year with Judon, Uche, and Perkins ahead of him on the depth chart?
Ronnie Perkins – I didn’t like the selection of Ronnie Perkins with the 3rd round pick. Not because of anything Perkins did or didn’t do, but rather I liked another player at that slot. Perkins was not on my radar. When I read about his background I really liked what I saw. The Patriots felt they needed a player who could hold the edge and provide a pass rush. What threw me was Perkins 6 game suspension. I understand the violation was for Marijuana, and with the loosening of laws and NFL regulations, this is now a minor offense that is overlooked by NFL talent evaluators. What I Loved about Perkins is how he handled the suspension. He became like an extra coach on the field, mentoring the younger players. Perkins was a value pick as Pro Football Focus had him rated as the #46 player and the Patriots got him at #96. The pick seemed redundant since they already had Chase Winowich. However, Perkins is actually slower than Winowich.
Cameron McGrone – This is what I wrote about McGrone in my Draft Analysis. “In the 5th round #177, they select an LB that can’t play this year. Again they received high grades for taking Cameron McGrone LB Michigan. Supposedly, McGrone can run sideline to sideline, but that was before his ACL injury that ended his 2020 season. McGrone looks like he will be on the Non-Football Injury list or Physically Unable to Play (PUP) list in 2021. He will look toward 2022 as his rookie season”. At 6’0.7” 235 lbs, McGrone looks more like a big safety and has solid footwork going in any direction. At Michigan. Playing under Don Brown, he has experience as a 3-4 LB and can play the ILB position as well. His speed was excellent, 4.54 estimate, before his torn ACL. Described as a downhill banger, and plays sideline to sideline. Brown’s defense required a lot of blitzing and McGrone can get to the QB. If he hadn’t injured his knee, McGrone would have been a 3rd rd pick. In a word he is athletic.
Terez Hall – Don’t sleep on Terez Hall. The 6’2” 238 lb linebacker from Missouri was very physical for the Pats last season. His combine was cut short by a pectoral strain in the weightlifting and then his Pro Day he had an Achilles issue. His 40 time at the combine was 4.90. That can’t be right, he has to be faster than that to play in the NFL. Originally, a UDFA in 2019, he spent the year on the Practice Squad. In 2020 he didn’t make the final 53 man roster and was signed to the Practice Squad. However, in week 9 he was called up and played in 8 consecutive games until an ankle injury felled him for the final game. Hall was a major contributor with 50 tackles. That will not go unnoticed by BB. He had 2 Pass Breakups and only missed 6 tackles in those eight games. On the minus side, he gave up 75% completion % when targeted and had no sacks. According to Mike Reiss of ESPN, Hall is recovering from off-season ankle surgery. His ability to come back from the injury will go a long way to whether or not he makes the team. He is in a dogfight for the last LB slot with Raekwon McMillan and Ja’Whuan Bentley.
Ja’Whuan Bentley – Thumper is his nickname and we are not talking about the cute bunny rabbit in Bambi! At 6’ 3” 240 lbs, 4.75 40, Bentley is that old school, hard-hitting, downhill player. The opposing lineman doesn’t want to meet him in the hole. The Purdue product was a two-time Captain for the Boilermakers. In 2018 he was a 5th round selection for the Patriots. His rookie season was cut short after three games and he was placed on IR with a bicep injury. In 2019 he ended up playing all 16 games, but with only 44 tackles, playing second fiddle to Van Noy, Collins, and Hightower. In COVID 2020 with all three players gone, Bentley emerged as the leading tackler with 90 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Before the start of the season, Bentley was chosen as one of the team Captains. Bentley is very well-liked by his teammates and coaches alike. On the negative side, Bentley is slow. Underwhelming athleticism gets exposed in coverage. Another description of Bentley said he is unplayable in a zone scheme. He is usually subbed out on 3rd down. Swing passes to backs on early downs target his limitations. He is on the bubble as far as making the team, and I don’t have him making the final 53. The caveat is the health of players as we progress through Training Camp.
Raekwon McMillian – In 2017 he was a 2nd round selection (#54) of the Miami Dolphins. The Ohio St product was a highly touted off-ball linebacker. At 6’2” 242 lbs, he ran 4.61 40 at the combine. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in Pre-Season for Miami and ended up on IR for the entire season. For the 2018 season, McMillan came back with a vengeance, recording 105 tackles, for 2nd on the defense. However, he has never come near that promise again. In 2019 his production was down to 72 tackles as he was used in a completely different role by the new coaching staff. The Las Vegas Raiders traded for him in 2020 but used him mostly in a special teams role. McMillan played on all 5 special teams for 61% of the snaps. On Defense, he was limited to 1st and 2nd running downs. What will his role with the Patriots be? I think much of the same. His low, one-year salary indicated it’s a show-me deal or one for a special teamer only. You know how BB loves him some special teamers. Will he make the team? Reports from OTA’s and Mini-Camp said the McMillan was very impressive and filled in for Hightower. That indicates he will be in the mix for the final LB spot.
Anfernee Jennings – The Alabama product came to the Patriots after an illustrious career in the SEC. After sitting out his Red Shirt year, Jennings played the next 4 years for the Crimson Tide. The linebacker played in 54 games, starting 38, and had 194 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, and 20 pass breakups. At 6’2.1” 259 lbs, he runs an estimated 4.78 40. The converted Defensive End had a bad knee injury during his redshirt sophomore season. At the end of the National Semi-Final game what was originally diagnosed as a PCL injury was later re-evaluated and they discovered he had a damaged artery and blood clot. Obviously, he missed the Championship game. For the Patriots, he was selected in the 3rd round (#87) of the 2020 draft. Many people had Jennings projected to go to the Patriots, including Jennings himself. He has the versatility that BB loves, playing the edge or traditional outside linebacker that can drop in coverage. During the 2020 season rookies like Jennings received a baptism of fire and played in 5 games with 20 tackles. Big things are expected from Jennings in 2021. That second-year jump from rookie to veteran is crucial. I believe Jennings will be a situational player. With the heavy lineup of linebackers on the team, Jennings should be an excellent backup should injuries occur. He definitely has a spot on the 53 man roster.
Tashawn Bowers – Minnesota originally signed this LSU Tiger Defensive End as a UDFA after the 2017 draft. Bowers went on and made the Vikings’ opening day roster. His two years with Minnesota were non-descript as Bowers played in only 7 games with 7 tackles. In 2019 he ruptured his Achilles during the off-season and was placed on the Non-Football Injury list. He was waived from the Vikings and signed to the Patriots Practice Squad where he remained for the remainder of the season. In 2020 he didn’t make the Patriots 53 man squad but was signed to the PS again. On October 24th and 31st, he was elevated from the PS and sent back after the game. Then in November, he received another call-up. He played in 2 games and was inactive for 5 others before he went on IR for the remainder of the season. He finished with 11 tackles in limited playing time. At nearly 6’5”, 231 lbs, he runs a 4.82 40. As a DE he needs to be a better pass rusher at that low weight to be effective. Bowers is just camp fodder.
Harvey Langi – Langi was signed as a UDFA after the 2017 draft by the Pats. He was given a signing bonus equivalent to a 5th round draft pick because there was so much competition for signing him as a UDFA. During that Pre-season camp, Langi impressed the coaches and made the opening day roster. Unfortunately, Langi and his wife were involved in a horrific automobile crash outside of their apartment complex in Foxboro. Langi suffered neck and back trauma. He was added to the Non-Football Injury list for the remainder of the season. In 18 he was released at the final cut-down and signed to NYJ PS. He was on the Jets PS for 2 years but made the final roster in 2020. He managed to play 14 games and had 60 tackles. He proved he belonged in the NFL. The 6’2”, 250 lb, Inside Linebacker ran a 4.62 30, 4.32 SS, 7.00 3 cone drill at the combine. He is much more athletic than Ja’Whaun Bentley in the middle. The BYU product would need to have a terrific training camp to make the team. More likely he is headed to the Practice Squad as insurance.
Rashod Berry – I highlighted Berry in the TE section, but he did see action last season as a Defensive End. The Patriots signed Berry as a UDFA after the 2020 draft. Belichick likes position flexibility and the more things you can do for the team the more likely you are to make the final 53 man roster. Berry fits that description as he was also projected to play Fullback. He plays on all the Special Team units (the Patriots were the #1 Special Teams Unit in the league last year). The Ohio State product stands 6’4” 255 lbs, his 40 time is estimated at 4.77. In the 2020 season, the UDFA was activated for 3 games but played in only the last game of the season and recorded 1 tackle. He is a long shot to make the final 53, but a nice to have a player on the Practice Squad that could fill any of the three positions on the team.
Are you getting excited? I can’t believe it’s the end of July already and it’s one week until training camp begins. I will finish my Roster analysis with the Defensive Backs, then it’s onto the 53 man roster projection and Training camp battles to watch. Lots happening very quickly. Remember to check out the NFL News section of Patsfans.com for all the comings and goings around the league.
Congrats to Doug Kyed, formerly the NESN Patriots beat writer. He has accepted an NFL national writers position with Pro Football Focus. The Patriots’ fans’ loss is PFF’s gain. I enjoyed the detailed draft work that Doug did, especially the spreadsheets by positions that showed all the draft prospect measurables.
Posted Under: Patriots News
Tags: 2021 Patriots Preseason New England Patriots