Tag Archives: C.J. Johnson

Patriots Training Camp Primer – Linebackers

Steve Balestrieri
July 22, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

Top End Talent, But Depth Needed in 2016

The Patriots head into training camp 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. Next up are 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. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So the next position to break down are the linebackers. The Patriots have two of the best LBs in the business with Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. But they each missed time in 2015 and the depth behind them was a problem. The run defense really suffered when Hightower was injured in the Denver game in November.

Jamie-Collins,-Chandler

Both are free agents at the end of this season, something the Patriots should try to rectify this summer. Jonathan Freeny played some meaningful snaps on defense but struggled with his consistency.

The team signed former Bears LB Shea McClellin this spring and the former first round pick gives them some versatility. He can play DE, OLB, and ILB. During the spring, McClellin was seen mostly at DE but I’d expect him to revert to linebacker once the pads come on.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin
Collins and Hightower are a fantastic duo at linebacker. One of the reasons I don’t care for those Top 10 Lists or in this case the NFL’s Top 100 is how can Collins be left off of that?

The freakishly athletic 6’3, 250-pound linebacker led the team in tackles with 89, had 5.5 sacks and forced five fumbles despite playing in only 12 games. He missed four games due to an illness. He’s also outstanding in coverage and can make plays all over the field. Pro Football Focus (PFF), had Collins rated as the AFC’s top linebacker in 2015.

While Collins and for that matter Hightower didn’t make the Top 100 player list, should they hit free agency they’ll get paid like one.

Hightower is the perfect complement to Collins. Big at 6’3, 265-pounds, he is a fantastic run stuffer in the box with his size and instinctive play. Smart, he calls the plays for the defense and ensures everyone is lined correctly pre-snap. He logged 61 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 12 games last season. Hightower is the glue that holds the front seven together and provides the solid run protection while Collins is the athletic playmaker.

McClellin came over from the Bears during free agency and the biggest question about his signing is, where will he fit?  New England was interested in him during the draft process in 2012 but the Bears selected him in the first round with the 19th overall pick.

Chicago initially had him as a sub-package edge rusher, a full-time defensive end, then two years ago they moved to linebacker where he lined up outside and then in the Mike position. While the Patriots worked him as a defensive end during the spring, look for him to revert to his best fit and that would be as a linebacker. McClellin will initially back up Collins and Hightower and go on the field when they play their base defense.

On the Bubble: Jonathan Freeny, Rufus Johnson, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Ramon Humber
Freeny came over from the Dolphins a year ago with the reputation as a solid special team performer. He did that but was pressed into service much more on defense after both Collins and Hightower were lost for periods of time during the year.

He logged the third most snaps at linebacker for the Patriots behind Collins and Hightower and notched 50 tackles, one sack, two QB pressures, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. But although he was serviceable against the run, Freeny struggled in coverage, allowing 19 of 21 passes to be completed. That must improve.

Johnson made the team out of training camp in 2015 only to end up on IR with an illness in October. The 6’5, the 280-pound backer is athletic and turned heads as a pass rusher in camp. His size and versatility (he can also play DE), may give him a leg up on Freeny if it comes down to a numbers crunch.

With defenses around the NFL getting smaller and more athletic, a player’s versatility can sometimes mean a world of difference between a roster spot and that dreaded call from the “Turk”. That’s where Kamu Grugier-Hill comes in. He is built like a safety, can run like a slot corner and plays linebacker.

The 6’2, 215-pound hybrid S/LB was drafted in the 6th round of this year’s draft with the 208th overall pick. He’s certainly athletic; he ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash with a 1.52 10-yard split. Coupled with a 6 .89-second time in the 3-Cone Drill, a 38.5-inch vertical leap, and a 10-foot, 9-inch broad jump, he’s intriguing, to say the least. He was getting a lot of 1-on-1 work with Special Teams Coach Joe Judge this spring and he should fit well in a gunner role as well as a punt blocker. But he could also see some time as hybrid “money” LB/S role that Pat Chung plays as well.

Grugier-Hill,-King-STs

Humber was the first player signed by the Patriots during free agency on March 9. He’s a standout special teams’ performer but with a limited ceiling on defense. He did have 13 starts at middle linebacker in the past three years as an injury replacement.

Originally signed in 2009 by the Colts as a UDFA out of North Dakota State, Humber moved over to the Saints in 2010 and played there until being released this spring. He may find himself pushed hard by Grugier-Hill.
Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Kevin Snyder, Elandon Roberts, C.J. Johnson
Snyder was signed to the Patriots practice squad in December after being released by the Lions who signed him as a rookie free agent in May. He was active for but didn’t play in the AFC Championship Game in Denver.

The 6’2, 240-pound Snyder is a Rutgers product and also has good athleticism, running a 4.54 time in the 40, with a 35-inch vertical leap at his school’s Pro Day.

Roberts was another 6th round draft pick by the Patriots and like Grugier-Hill is undersized at 6’0, 235 pounds. But he’s very productive and plays a down-hill style, run thumping Mike linebacker that belies his lack of size. He shows a tremendous explosion in the running game and when blitzing but struggles in pass coverage.

C.J. Johnson is a 6’2, 235-pound rookie linebacker from Mississippi. He’s had injury concerns while in college and was moved from defensive end to middle linebacker in his senior season. His work ethic and attitude were lauded by the coaches and he was elected to be a team captain. However, he’ll face a steep uphill climb to make the roster.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line and the defensive line.  And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

 

Patriots Linebackers, Rated #4…With a Bullet

Steve Balestrieri
May 13, 2016 at 6:55 am ET

 

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.

 

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.