Tag Archives: Jonathan Freeny

New England Patriots Training Camp Primer – Linebackers

Steve Balestrieri
July 18, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

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.

Our earlier evaluations looked at the Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Offensive Line
Defensive Line

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.

Signing Dont’a Hightower back to the team after allowing him to test free agency was a great move for the team. (SBalestrieri photo)

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.

Shea McClellin was a versatile performer for the team in 2016. (SBalestrieri photo)

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.

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.

Which Patriots Veterans Could Be On the Hot Seat This Summer

Steve Balestrieri
May 25, 2017 at 9:16 am ET

The Patriots made splashes in both the free agency period and the 2017 NFL Draft this offseason to augment an already loaded roster that won the Super Bowl in February. While we continue to watch the developments of these players and try to figure out how well they’ll fit in their new environs, the other side of the equation always is, who do they replace?

There is always movement on the Patriots roster and Bill Belichick has always shown that he’ll cut a player a year early rather than wait until a year too late. Even some of his favorite players that he’s coached will eventually be shown the door, that is part of the reason why he continues to be so successful year after year.

So, with that in mind, the competition in training camp this season should be pretty intense and here are a few veterans that may be facing getting a visit from the “Turk” this summer.

Danny Amendola:  His name is on the list seemingly every year, so eventually we’ll be right, or he’ll retire in another few years before he’s shown the door. Another season, another re-done contract. Amendola has shown to be a tough, reliable wide receiver who while not putting up great numbers, saves his best for big plays at crunch time.

Danny Amendola runs a route in training camp 2016 (SBalestrieri photo)

With a very deep roster at the wide receiver position this season, Amendola will invariably face the questions if he’ll get axed this summer. With Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell already penciled in, the competition will be there for Amendola to produce for the fifth WR position.

But Amendola has worked his way into QB Tom Brady’s circle of trust which is no small feat. If he stays healthy, he should be able to fend off his competitors for another season. Then come late February, he’ll be the subject of these rumors again.

Brandon Bolden: One of the more intriguing guys on the roster, Bolden is a core Special Teams player on a roster that already has a bunch of them. Bolden was a free agent this spring and signed a new deal to return.  But his roster spot is anything close to a given this year.

With the additions of Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, the Patriots backfield with James White, Dion Lewis, D.J. Foster, and UDFA LeShun Daniels as well as fullbacks James Develin and Glenn Gronkowski makes the RB position stacked. Bolden may find himself a victim of the numbers game. With RB position in mind…

Dion Lewis: Wait?! What?! Don’t be shocked if Lewis, who was injured in 2015 and came back midway thru the 2016 season is under the gun this summer. He showed glimpses of what he’s capable of last season, but he wasn’t all the way back from his injury (Torn ACL) last year.

Now, more than a year removed from his rehab, Lewis will have to show the shiftiness that made him a Swiss Army Knife of the Patriots offense, a guy who can do a little bit of everything. James White took over his role last year and was simply outstanding in the Super Bowl, parlaying that into a contract extension.

Lewis faces the added competition of Burkhead, Gillislee (who should be taking the LeGarrette Blount role) and second year player D.J. Foster, who is a dangerous receiver with the ball in his hands. Lewis’ spot if far from a certainty either.

Linebackers Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy: Any of these three could be cut this summer, possibly even more than one. Freeny was a starter at the beginning of 2016 and a favorite of Bill Belichick. Freeny’s base salary is $1.8 million this season, he’s always been a stellar Special Team’s performer but his ability to contribute on defense, or lack thereof may be something to watch this summer.

Shea McClellin in 2016. (SBalestrieri photo)

McClellin was picked up last season and the team seemed to struggle to find him a role at first until they put him in a sub-package role, but while he’s not as good in coverage or as a pass rusher as Van Noy, nor the run stuffer that Elandon Roberts is, he can do a little bit of each. And he’s a guy that can slide down to defensive end for a few snaps as well. Versatility being a big thing with the coaches but will it be enough?

Van Noy was a nice pickup from the Lions last season, he showed that he could rush the passer and drop into coverage with good production. While not great against the run, he’s the best bet to remain this season, but will have to have a good summer as well.

All three will face some competition from second year player Roberts as well as UDFAs Harvey Langi and Brooks Ellis. Langi is an intriguing player who looked fantastic as a junior in 2015 before his coaches moved him out of position to DE last year. The Patriots paid him $100,000 guaranteed money which is a lot for an UDFA, so they have some hopes that he could compete for a roster spot.

Brandon King/Nate Ebner: These two players are safeties officially but are big special teams’ contributors. Their level of play has continued to be high and both are valuable pieces of the puzzle. So why are they on here? Numbers.

With the Patriots possibly keeping more WRs or RBs on the roster this season, the numbers dictate that someone is going to have to be cut to make room. The bottom of the roster will be an intriguing place to watch this summer.

Neither plays many snaps on defense, although Ebner does fill in on occasion in short yardage and goal line packages, and the Patriots are pretty much set at safety. Their value lies on STs but there are only so many spots on the roster that can be penciled in, each must have a good summer to stick although I’d give Ebner the edge here.

Two other names that can be added to the list are tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming although the latter seems a good bet to stick this season.

The Patriots will have some great positional battles during training camp this summer. The tough part of having a stocked roster is that you always have to let go of some good veteran and rookie players.

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 Draft Profile: LB Ryan Anderson

Steve Balestrieri
March 23, 2017 at 6:00 am ET

Anderson, Big, Physical SAM Linebacker to Play Next to Hightower

As the 2017 NFL Draft draws closer we’ll profile some of the players that may be on the Patriots radar or that we feel would be a great fit.

The Patriots could use more depth at the linebacker position. The good news is that Dont’a Hightower is returning with a new 4-year, $43.5 million-dollar contract. But after him, they have some questions. Elandon Roberts did a good job at stuffing the run but was a liability in coverage. Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy are sub-backers on passing downs, while Jonathan Freeny spent the year on IR.

Hightower is the glue for the entire front seven and calls the plays on defense. The Patriots really don’t have a player that can replace him. Roberts may make a big jump in Year 2 but they’d be best served to draft a three-down linebacker that can set the edge in the running game but also help with some blitzing off the edge on passing downs.

Ryan Anderson from Alabama comes from a Pro-ready program with Nick Saban and can step in on Day 1 and be a key contributor. He paid his dues with the Tide and was a fifth-year senior. Although he had played extensively in 2014 and 2015, it wasn’t until this past year that he got to start. Anderson performed well in the Crimson Tide’s defense logging 61 tackles including 19 for a loss along with 9 sacks in 2016.

He’s thick in the chest and shoulders and has very good functional strength and power at the point of attack. Sets the edge very well in the running game. Can rush the passer although he doesn’t have elite speed and can use both power or moves to get to the QB.

He’s instinctive, aggressive with good ball skills and is consistently good against both the run and pass. He’s also got very good STs value.

Pros:

– Quick instinctive player that makes plays

– Tough, competitive, and aggressive

– Smart edge setter and strong pass rusher

– Good ball skills and WR awareness

Cons

– Speed is only so-so

– Short arms and only marginal height

– Only a starter for one season

What his Role Will Be:
Anderson’s role would be to be pushing for starting reps at the SAM linebacker spot on Day 1. With the lack of depth at the linebacker position, Anderson and Hightower should give the Patriots a pair of Alabama backers for the next several years.

Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?
Yes, with his ability to set the edge in the running game and another year in the system he should see his level of play increase to where he can become an impact player.

How Many Downs Can He Play?
Three

What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?
He’ll challenge for starting reps right away, his spot on the roster would impact any of the other three McClellin, Freeny, and Van Noy. It should generate some good competition at training camp.

What is his ST Value?
Very good, he can be an immediate contributor in all four phases.

Conclusion:
Anderson is a very intriguing player, he comes from the Alabama and Nick Saban program, a close friend of Bill Belichick and played in a scheme that should translate very well for the Patriots.

He’s a relentless pass rusher and plays his angles superbly on defense and rarely if ever gets caught by a cutback run. Is never out of position. He’s a finisher as a tackler with four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and three passes defensed in 2016.

Anderson has a high football IQ with a great work ethic and was lauded by Saban for his leadership on a defense full of leaders. He’s a perfect player for the Patriots defense. He’s isn’t Von Miller flashy, he just does everything well and does them right. He’d be a tremendous addition next to Hightower.

His lack of ideal length and the fact that he isn’t a speed demon from the edge will probably set him back a bit in the draft which would help Belichick and the Patriots. He may just probably last into the 3rd Round of the NFL Draft which would put him in a good position to be picked up by New England.

Anderson’s highlight reel tape can be seen here:

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.

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.

Possible Patriots Draft Target, LB Jordan Jenkins

Steve Balestrieri
April 1, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

As the 2016 NFL Draft draws closer we’ll profile some of the players that may be on the Patriots radar that we feel would be a great fit.

The Patriots have a pair of outstanding linebackers in Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. They also picked up Shea McClellin from the Bears this spring. Mclellin, Jon Bostic, Jonathan Freeny, Eric Martin, Rufus Johnson, James Vaughters and Kevin Snyder will be looking to round out the LB roster for the team this season.

The team will still be looking to add some younger depth thru the draft in a few weeks. With Jerod Mayo retired, the team will miss his leadership both on and off the field. The Patriots like their linebackers on the bigger side and versatile. And there are plenty of them to pick from. Looking at the middle rounds is probably where the Patriots will look to select an additional linebacker.

Jordan Jenkins from Georgia is a player that fits the bill of what Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia look for in an outside linebacker. He’s got good size at 6’3, 257 pounds with almost freakish long arms (34 ¼). For a big guy he ran fairly well at the NFL Combine and he’s a strong, powerful player who can set the edge in the running game and hold up well.

A three-year starter for the Bulldogs, he was dinged up with a couple of different injuries as a senior but still logged 59 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, and four sacks. He’s versatile and has played both outside linebacker positions as well as with his hand in the dirt.

He was a team captain; something Belichick loves in his players and brings his lunch pail to work every day. He has a very high football I.Q. and isn’t lost when asked to drop into coverage. He has outstanding awareness on the field and plays with a physical, hard edge.

jordan-jenkins-ncaa-football-florida-georgia-590x900

Pros:

– Good size for the position

– Excellent football I.Q.

– Will shed blocks with his hands and get to the ball carrier

– Can set the edge in the running game

Cons

– Still emerging as a pass rusher

– He is a bit stiff changing direction, coverage will be something to work on

– Multiple injuries last year a concern

What his Role Will Be:
His role will be competing for one of the outside linebacker roles. His best fit would be as a SAM or strong-side linebacker lined up over the tight end. He will set the edge in the running game.

Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?
Yes, with an added year under his belt and learning some better pass rush moves, he could push for more reps and possibly as a starter in the base defense.

How Many Downs Can He Play?
Three

What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?
His roster slot would be in competition with guys like Martin, Johnson and Snyder.

What is his ST Value?
Good, he would find himself on some of the coverage units.

Conclusion:
Jenkins has some explosion or as he says about himself “I got some hops in me.” He had a vertical of 38 inches, so he wasn’t wrong.  Playing mostly in a 3-4 defense that the Bulldogs utilized, Jenkins could just as easily line up as a 4-3 outside linebacker or as a sub-rusher defensive end with the Patriots. Utilizing mainly a bull rush due to his long arms and strong hands, he could use a little bit more bend in the ankle and knees when trying to turn the corner. With some additional coaching, his pass rush skills should improve.

He’s bigger than many of the edge players in the draft and has very good initial quickness, good athleticism, and a tough, hard-nosed attitude. He has good awareness and play recognition and will react quickly and fly to the ball. He has a non-stop motor and always gives 100 percent.

Coupled with his leadership skills and football savvy he’s a good fit for the Patriots defense. He supposedly met with and worked out for the Patriots recently.

He projects in the Patriots system to be a Potential Starter on Day 1. He should fit in well into the NE defense. Jenkins is currently slotted on most draft boards to be drafted in the 3rd or the 4th round. If he is available then, he could be of interest to the Patriots.

Jenkins highlight film can be found here, courtesy of Granger Danger:

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.

Patriots Sign LB Shea McClellin to 3-Year Deal, Add Depth to Defense

Steve Balestrieri
March 17, 2016 at 6:21 am ET

The Patriots made big trades for the past two days and now have added some much-needed depth at linebacker by signing former Bears 1st round pick Shea McClellin to a 3-year contract on Wednesday night. The news was first reported by Adam Schefter of ESPN.

In a year that the Patriots have been stripped of their first round draft pick by the league with the Deflategate nonsense, the team has added four former first round picks in G Jonathan Cooper, DE Chris Long, RB Donald Brown and now McClellin.

McClellin was originally drafted by the Bears in the first round of the 2012 draft from Boise State with the 19th overall and used as a defensive end. He was reportedly on the Patriots radar in the draft but the Bears selected him two picks before New England selected Chandler Jones.

The Bears envisioned him as a bookend pass rusher to Julius Peppers at the time, something that never materialized. It was that and perhaps a case of them reaching for him in the first round that permanently had McClellin the target of criticism in Chicago.

The Bears moved him to outside linebacker where he had limited success until they moved him to inside linebacker in 2014 in their 3-4 scheme where it all started to fall into place under the tutelage of Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

At that time, the Bears had Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher on the inside and it was just a case where they failed to utilize him in a position that he was better suited for.

Fangio whose straight from the hip, direct answers during interviews is well documented, made his feelings clear on McClellin’s prospects at inside linebacker last year when asked about his progress on the inside.

“I like him,” Fangio said. “His future is bright. He’s playing good for us. Obviously, we think he’ll play even better as we move on through this season and in the future. His future is bright here as a linebacker.”

McClellin is a good sized (6’3, 245 pound), linebacker with above average speed and athleticism. He’s probably best suited to be a strong-side linebacker covering tight ends in the 4-3 Patriots system either in base or in their sub-packages. He also has special teams experience as well which should definitely come into play with New England.

How Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia envision his use isn’t yet known, but they obviously felt like he can be a valuable piece of the depth here, hence the three-year deal. His versatility in being able to play a variety of roles had to be an enticing lure for the Pats.

He’ll join a stable coaching staff for the first time in his career, having gone thru three coaches in his four years with the Bears, another factor that may have limited his growth as a player.

With the retirement of Jerod Mayo and Dane Fletcher and the release of Darius Fleming, the Patriots have a need of depth at linebacker. They have a pair of outstanding ones in Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Now McClellin will join Jonathan Freeny, Kevin Snyder and former Bear Jon Bostic on the roster to beef up the depth.

With a fresh start with the Patriots and no longer having to live up to the pressure of being a first-round draft pick and being allowed to play to his strengths, McClellin should be able to find a nice niche in the New England defense.

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.

Larry Butler III Interview, Small School Stud LB, Perfect Patriot Fit

Steve Balestrieri
February 27, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The small Christian Liberal Arts school of Southern Nazarene is 1674 miles away from Foxboro in Bethany, Oklahoma but the middle linebacker for the Crimson Storm plays football like he’s already been residing at One Patriots Place.

Larry Butler III is a name many of you have never heard of since he played for a small Division 2 school and one whose team was just 1-10 in 2015. But in looking for a guy who can play middle or inside linebacker for the Patriots, he’s an impressive young man who is worth a look.

Butler agreed to sit down to talk for an interview with us at PatsFans.com while he’s preparing to hopefully hear his name called in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s been working out at Champion Fitness and Nutrition in Atlanta, getting ready for his Pro Day, since he was snubbed without an invite to the NFL Combine. But don’t let that sway you, there are plenty of players on the 53-man roster who also have been snubbed… more to that in a bit.

Butler’s final season was a tough one both as a team and personally. He missed two games with an ankle injury and parts of a couple of others. But still managed 75 tackles, a sack and 2 interceptions in 2015. He was named to the All GAC team. In 2014 he had 93 total tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss (TFL), 2.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles.

Butler grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and had about 20 offers to go Division 1, including 5 from the SEC. But his grades weren’t there so he entered Junior College. ESPN had him ranked the #1 JUCO linebacker and he was set to enter Tennessee before a snafu emerged. He took one class too many in Junior college, therefore, would only have one year of eligibility remaining for Division 1 and the Vols.

So Butler opted for the small school of Southern Nazarene University outside of Oklahoma City. So why there at Southern Nazarene? That was the first logical question to ask. “I was committed to Tennessee, but due to a technicality, that didn’t happen, but what drew me here (Southern Nazarene) was the Christian environment, the home feeling of the entire university and I felt like that is what I needed in my life. The academic prestige of the university was definitely a factor as well.”

Tennessee’s loss was Southern Nazarene’s gain,” said his defensive coordinator and interim head coach in 2015 Craig Hubbard. “We felt truly fortunate to get Larry here and he was a big, big part of our program.”

We mixed things up when I was the DC,” Hubbard said. “We played 4-3, 3-4, Larry fit in well, he’s a very physical, instinctive player. He played off blocks well and he’s a great tackler.”

We asked Butler who is working out in Atlanta, is there a specific area that you’re looking to improve on?

Not in particular, I feel like you can always get better, but in refining technique, getting quicker, stronger and faster, some mental acumen… studying the mental side of football, coverages and certain things I’ll have to face at the next level.”

A downhill, instinctive linebacker, the 6’1, 248-pound Butler is a thumper in the middle of the field, runs a 4.67 in the 40-yard dash but is a three-down player. He was a member on all four core special teams units as well so he isn’t worried about having to earn his way onto the field via special teams either.

He has a tremendous work ethic and is a true student of the game. One of his strong suits is not only knowing his responsibilities but those of the other members of the defense as well.

“I take pride in knowing everything that’s taking place on the football field, as the middle linebacker, the quarterback of the defense, we HAVE to know where the D-Linemen are lining up, what the backs must do on the back end,” he said.

“If I don’t do that I don’t feel like I’m doing my job.”

Hubbard chuckled when we talked about Butler’s work ethic, “Whenever I was looking for Larry, we’d always find him in the film room. There were times, I’d be wanting to lock up shop for the night, no one is left in the building… and he’s in there wanting to watch more film, break down tendencies…he’d always want to meet, and watch film. Larry’s a real go-getter when it came to getting himself prepared for the game and knowing the opponent.”

“He was a heckuva player for us, and if somebody gives Larry a shot, I think he can absolutely be playing in the NFL next year.”

Is there a better fit for Butler in a 3-4 defense or the 4-3 that the Patriots use in their base? “I feel like I’m versatile enough to fit in any scheme, I do like the 3-4 defense with more linebackers on the field, that was something that I got accustomed to in high school. We played a 4-3 here so it wouldn’t make a difference. I feel like I fit in either.”

Is there an NFL player who’s game you feel like you are similar to? “I feel like I am kinda unique,” Butler said. “But a few scouts compared me to a Denzel Perryman.”

We asked him an NFL Combine-type question, ‘if I’m Bill Belichick why would we pick you up as a member of the Patriots?’

“I’d look him right in the eye and say, that would be one of the best decisions you ever made.” Coincidentally, those were nearly the exact words that Tom Brady told Robert Kraft after the 2000 draft.

I’m a hungry individual that is looking for a chance, I think I can help the team win, there will never be any off-field issues with me. I’ll be the first one in the film room, weight room and the last one out. I want to achieve greatness and am willing to do whatever it takes to do that.”

With the retirement of Jerod Mayo, the Patriots can use some depth at the linebacker position behind Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, especially inside. Jonathan Freeny and Darius Fleming are primarily outside linebackers. Jon Bostic is on the roster but didn’t play much on defense last season, mainly on special teams.

Butler is a perfect fit for the Belichick mold, a guy that eats, sleeps and lives for football. He can fulfill a role and need for the team and with a late round draft pick or perhaps signing him as an UDFA, he could be the next diamond in the rough for the Patriots.

As for him not being invited to the Combine, some other Patriots players who also weren’t invited include Julian Edelman, Shaq Mason, Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Ebner, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Malcolm Butler and Darryl Roberts.

Butler possesses the same trait as all of them, a deep desire to improve and the work ethic to see it through. All he’s looking for is a chance. Two seasons ago the Patriots had a Butler from a small Division 2 school come out of nowhere to play a big role for the team when they needed it the most. Perhaps it is time for another Butler from a small Division 2 school to do it again.

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.