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.
As the 2018 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 are in need of an off-the-ball linebacker, one who can cover as well as come off the edge as a pass rusher. Last season the team lost Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin and Harvey Langi to season-ending injuries. McClellin was cut and will probably retire due to concussion issues. And depending on how they decide to utilize the other two either as edge rushers or linebackers will also factor in.
Right now the team has Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Marquis Flowers, and Nicholas Grigsby on the roster. Van Noy and Flowers played key roles during the season, Van Noy especially, but the one area that really hurt them was running backs in the passing game.
Seven times during the season opposing running backs caught passes totaling 50 yards or more. During the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, they were gashed by Corey Clement for 100 yards on four catches and a touchdown. So a dose of speed and athleticism is in the cards for the Patriots this spring at the linebacker position.
Darius Leonard from South Carolina State is a small school standout who definitely has the speed, athleticism, and instincts to play at the next level. Leonard was a standout high school player in South Carolina but got no love from either South Carolina or Clemson, (who offered him a walk-on chance). Rather than dwell on it, he used it as fodder to drive him.
Signing with South Carolina State, he strove to become a better player. “I used that as a little chip on my shoulder to show teams what they could’ve had,” he said. “I’m still that guy because I came from a small program, so I’ve got a point to prove.”
The 6’2, 229-pound linebacker had outstanding production for the Bulldogs in 2017 with 114 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, one forced fumble, two passes defensed and two interceptions. Playing against top-flight competition in the Senior Bowl, he piled up a game-high 14 tackles.
He’s got the issues with he could use more muscle onto his lanky frame, which is already close to being maxed out. He could be more physical and won’t be a stout edge guy (at least initially) at setting the edge against bigger offensive linemen.
But his game is based on speed and athleticism, much like the league is going to today. He’s versatile and can play inside or outside as a 4-3 WILL linebacker.
– Outstanding length and speed
– Excellent production
– Good in both zone, man coverage
– Good tackler
– Slightly underpowered
– Frame is almost maxed out
– May need a year of seasoning
What his Role Will Be:
Leonard would step into a subpackage coverage role from Day 1 as well as being an effective chip to blitz off the edge.
Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?
Yes, in Year 2 with time in the strength and conditioning program, he could become a very productive starter.
How Many Downs Can He Play?
What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?
None, with McClellin and David Harris gone and James Harrison a free agent, there are already open spots for him to snatch up.
What is his ST Value?
He’d immediately become a core special teams guy with his athleticism and physicality.
Conclusion: NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein in his profile wrote that “Long and twitchy with athletic ability and straight-line speed that should light up the combine. Leonard has packed on the pounds since hitting campus, but it hasn’t compromised his play speed as he has posted dominant production throughout. He lacks play strength and there are times you want to see him play nastier in his field demeanor, but he has the traits and talent to become a good, three-down linebacker who can play 3-4 inside backer or 4-3 WILL.”
Leonard’s speed, athleticism, and instincts make him a very attractive Day 2 prospect. He was the two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, with outstanding speed and athleticism. He’s excellent at timing delayed blitzes and getting to the quarterback.
Leonard is versatile and can play inside or at the WILL linebacker role which he may be best suited for. He handles coverage very well and can cover a lot of ground. Watching him, he gets very good depth in his drops and can fly around from sideline to sideline to make plays. He is good in the running game with his ability to slip blocks.
He may take a bit of time to find his way in the NFL game and get some more playing strength but with the trend going to smaller, faster linebackers, he’s a guy whose arrow is pointing upward. He’s described as a “mature, respectful individual, an old soul” according to his coaches.
He answered the bell when the questions were asked about playing against top competition at the Senior Bowl and against Clemson (19 tackles) and can be a very productive player at the next level.
Leonard’s highlight reel tape from Rashaad Lemon can be seen here:
Evans New Breed of NFL Linebacker, Fast, Physical, Explosive
As the 2018 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 really need more depth and a dose of athleticism and speed at the Linebacker position. They were thin at the beginning of the 2017 season and injuries to key players set them back to where it became a glaring weakness in the Super Bowl loss.
The team lost Shea McClellin in the preseason due to concussions and he missed the entire season. Top draft choice Derek Rivers who they were playing in a tweener role bouncing back and forth at DE/OLB was lost to a torn ACL in training camp as well. Dont’a Hightower missed most of the season with different injuries and was placed on IR. He was the one guy the front seven could ill afford to lose. David Harris showed that he had lost too much speed and was barely used. James Harrison was added late in the year. Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers both played well and they return and help with the depth
Hightower and Rivers return which should help the depth but inside Elandon Roberts is better suited to be a backup than a starter. He frequently was out of position and is a liability in coverage. Will the team move Hightower back inside or will they leave him on the edge? Will the team use Harvey Langi, who was also lost to NFI (Car wreck) at linebacker or will they use him too on the edge? Lots of questions here.
Rashaan Evans from Alabama comes from a Pro-ready program with Nick Saban and can step in on Day 1 and be a key contributor. With the steady influx of talent with the Tide, Evans had to be patient. But despite not being a full-time starter until 2017, he played significant snaps on Special Teams as a freshman.
Evans put the time in and saw his snaps and production increase each year. During the two playoff games in 2016, he started both and was ready for his coming out party last year. He led the excellent Crimson Tide defense with tackles (74), with 13.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and three passes knocked down, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He was All-SEC Second Team.
He’s 6’3, 234 pounds and has tremendous sideline-to-sideline speed. He’s a quick twitch athlete who is versatile and can play inside at the Mike Linebacker position or outside as well as rush off the edge in sub-packages.
Watching the Alabama defense, he’d be an outstanding delayed Blitzer up the A-Gap. His speed would put an interior offensive lineman on their heels. He flies around the ball and is relentless. The one play that stands out was against Clemson in the national championship. He blitzed off the edge from the left. The quarterback threw a quick screen to the right. Evans after getting to the quarterback still chased down the running back for a minimal gain going across the field.
– Tremendous speed can easily go sideline to sideline
– Tough, explosive, and a very good tackler
– Versatile can play inside or outside on the edge
– Excellent blitzer up the inside gaps
– Can sometimes overrun plays
– Some durability concerns
– Only a full-time starter for one season
What his Role Will Be:
Evans role would be to immediately take over the inside linebacker position and is a big upgrade over Roberts inside. He can cover a tremendous amount of ground and will be a big addition not only in the running game but in coverage and blitz as well.
Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?
Yes, with his ability to go from sideline-to-sideline, they can then explore the possibility of letting him call the defensive signals and as he grows more comfortable in the defense allow him to blitz more.
How Many Downs Can He Play?
What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?
He’ll bump Roberts for the starting role on Day 1. While Roberts spot on the 53-man roster is probably still secure, some of the other depth players may find themselves outside looking in.
What is his ST Value?
Very good, he can be an immediate contributor and played significant STs snaps since his freshman year in college.
NFL.com’s Lance Zeirlein in his profile wrote about his versatility. “Evans is an ideal inside linebacker fit for a blitz-happy 3-4 unit, but he could easily fit as a 4-3 WILL with rush potential on sub-packages,” Zeirlein said. “Evans is an early starter with high-end potential if he can stay healthy.”
Evans is a smart, tremendously athletically gifted linebacker who has the perfect work ethic that teams will covet. He wants to play, improve and above all else, puts the team first. Nick Saban has a knack for finding some outstanding talented front sevens during his tenure at Alabama and Evans is the latest of talented linebackers to move to the pros.
He and Hightower would make a great team at linebacker and he’d immediately upgrade the unit. With a linebacking core desperately in need of speed and athleticism, Evans checks the block quite easily. He can cover tight ends, running backs and even slot receivers in a pinch. He ran the all-important 3-Cone Drill in 6.95.
The problem with him is where he falls in the draft. I’ve seen Evans drafted anywhere between 16 and 25 on mock drafts. There is no way, he falls to the Patriots at #31. So, if they like him and see an opportunity, then the Patriots are going to have to move up in the 1st round and swing a deal with someone to swoop in and steal him away from other teams.
Evans’ highlight reel tape from M&M Productions can be seen here:
In the aftermath of the Super Bowl just a couple of weeks ago the Patriots and Eagles are now trying to play catch up with the preparation for the NFL Combine and Draft. One of the areas that the Patriots have to improve on is the linebacker position. As we’ve noted on here several times, they need to get more speed and athleticism at the position.
There are two ways to address this, free agency or the draft. In the end, they may opt for both. Free agency is definitely the more expensive of the two but the answer may have been on the field facing them in the Super Bowl if everything falls their way. One player that should be on the Patriots radar is the Eagles’, Nigel Bradham.
Bradham is still just 28, and athletic enough to play from sideline to sideline. He led the Eagles in tackles the past two years. He’s quickly becoming the Eagles’ best coverage linebacker, something that Jordan Hicks currently boasts. But he already is the team’s best tackler, and he’s as sure as can be in that aspect.
Once Hicks went down with an injury, Bradham took over the play calling for the defense wearing the green dot for the defense, a leadership, and trust factor that would play well with Bill Belichick. In Jim Schwartz’s defense, like the Patriots, they played with mainly two linebackers and more often than not opting for a slot corner. Bradham played the strong side in the Eagles’ defense and would no doubt do the same here.
Schwartz spoke highly of Bradham before the Super Bowl. “ He’s done a really good job handling all that communication, and it’s been fairly seamless, “ Schwartz said. .” I think that it’s really a credit to him is how he’s able to do that. He’s been able to play a couple different positions. He’s been multi-dimensional.”
Bradham has been durable, not missing any games due to injury with the Eagles, he was rested with other starters in the season finale. But he’s solid and is a workhorse. He played in 100 percent of the snaps in every playoff game and in 11 regular season games. His stat-line for his career is 428 tackles, including 25 for losses; 6.5 sacks, two interceptions, 5 forced fumbles. He’s got good size at 6’2, 245-pounds and as we mentioned above, can play sideline to sideline.
How Bradham Fits in New England’s Defense: He’d function much like he already does in Philadelphia. He’d be a strong-side linebacker in the Patriots sub-package look. He wouldn’t be asked to be the signal caller since he’s new and could just concentrate on making plays. He’d be a nice upgrade over the up and down Elandon Roberts in both the running and passing games.
His presence would allow the Patriots to mix and match Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower between on the weakside or lining up as edge rushers at defensive end. The Patriots could dictate their looks depending upon the mismatches that the could see. It would immediately bring the depth up at linebacker as they’d have Bradham, Hightower, Van Noy and Marquis Flowers as their top four linebackers with two having the ability to rotate into the defensive line.
Bradham does everything very well and is a smart respected teammate. He did have a couple of off-field incidents a few years ago but was cleared in both of those. He’s been a good citizen in the Philadelphia and there’ve been no issues.
What Would it Take to Sign Him? When Looking at linebackers who aren’t edge rushers, to nail down a player of Bradham’s caliber would take probably between $5-5.5 million dollars. While that won’t break the bank, it is a tidy sum for a team without a ton of cap space right now. The Patriots (right now) have $13.14 million dollars in cap space. With some creative work on the salary cap, the Patriots could clear up to about $30 million.
So is it doable from a Patriots perspective? Yes. He’d be an immediate upgrade in the running game and in coverage. He’s a fiery, physical player who flies from sideline to sideline. In the last two seasons, he’s produced 190 tackles, 13 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 3 sacks, and an Interception.
What about the Eagles? Philadelphia would love to bring him back. They love his athleticism, his smarts and attitude on the field. The issue with the Eagles is money. Normally Philadelphia under Howie Roseman likes to carry over about $20 million in the salary cap. But this season is the exception. Right now, the Eagles are almost $9 million dollars over the cap as it stands.
Hicks is coming back from an injury and they’re already on the hook for $7.6 million to Mychal Kendricks. Can they afford to bring him back? Not just yet. They’ll be forced to do some creative work to not only get under the cap but to sign their players, Bradham is one of their priority free agents.
Who knows, Bradham may try to pull a reverse move similar to what Chris Long and LeGarrette Blount did a year ago by going to the Super Bowl with New England and then leaving in free agency with Philadelphia.
He would be a welcomed, big addition to the Patriots defense. But the price will have to right for both the team and the player. If 2017 was any indication, the market for linebackers won’t be too high. The Bills Preston Brown signed with Washington for just $2.3 million dollar base salary with incentives built in. Bradham should go higher than that but we’ll have to see how high. Of course, there is always the wildcard of another team swooping in and giving Bradham a big-money contract. That what makes this time of year so interesting. Bradham will have some interesting decisions to make this spring.
The Patriots will enter the beginning of the 2018 league season with several important decisions to make in regards to free agency. Among the veterans looking for a new deal are Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Nate Ebner and Matthew Slater. There are other veterans such as Brandon Bolden, James Harrison, LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming who have played significant roles at times and have been limited in others.
The Patriots have only $13.14 million dollars under the salary cap right now and will have to be creative in creating some room as well as decide who they want to retain. They’ll need to sign a few of their own free agents as well as grab some others who they covet from other teams. All the while knowing they have draft choices to sign.
We’ve been doing profiles on each of the free agents and will have more in the upcoming days and give you our take on whether they return or move on. One of the biggest surprises for the end of the season was the addition they made during Week 17 of the regular season when OLB James Harrison fell into their lap after he was surprisingly and probably not wisely let go by the Steelers.
The Steelers barely used Harrison in 2017, he played a total of 29 snaps total for the season. He wasn’t happy about it and let the coaches know about it. They released him and the 39-year old cleared waivers. No team contacted him except the Patriots. He signed and immediately put his nose to the grindstone trying to learn the Pats defense in a crash course.
The conspiracy theorists who see a nefarious end to everything New England does chalked up the signing as merely a Bill Belichick ploy to steal the Pittsburgh playbook for when they were supposed to meet in the AFC Championship Game. Wrong again. Harrison fulfilled a role and played meaningful snaps more each week.
Meanwhile, the team that didn’t need him, spent more time talking about New England and forgetting they had a game against a Jacksonville team that had blown them out in Pittsburgh early in the season. Harrison could have been used as the Jaguars scored 45 points and knocked them out.
Harrison played a key role in the Patriots comeback win over the Jaguars a week later and played an even bigger role in the Super Bowl. Now with free agency approaching, the Patriots and Harrison both have to do what is in their best respective interests.
Why Harrison Will Return: The Patriots lucked into a player who helped them down the stretch by one of their bigger rivals in the conference. Despite being the NFL’s oldest defensive player at 39-years old, he fulfilled a much-needed role. He did a very good job of setting the edge, providing a sorely needed ability at rushing the passer and was decent dropping into coverage, an issue that plagued the Patriots’ linebackers all year.
Harrison earned praise from Bill Belichick who lauded his ability to learn on the fly and was constantly putting more on his plate as the weeks dragged on. His teammates raved about his professionalism and his knowledge, he was quick to help his younger teammates, something his experience lent itself to extremely well.
He could easily return to a type of role that Danny Amendola was used in the offense. The coaches could limit his pitch count to save him to have fresh legs for the defense down the stretch and into the playoffs. His performance down the stretch and into the playoffs showed (much like another 40-year old) that age is a number. He still had plenty of gas left in the tank and can be a valuable, if limited contributor on the field and be a steadying veteran presence on the field especially at crunch time during games.
Why Harrison Won’t Return: There is a dearth of speed and athleticism for the Patriots at linebacker, and with so much uncertainty at the position heading into 2018, the Patriots could possibly not afford to add another player who’ll they have to limit his pitch count during the regular season.
Dont’a Hightower is a very talented but injury prone player who can’t seem to get thru a season intact. Shea McClellin missed the entire season with concussion issues and may be told it isn’t in his best interests to play professional football anymore. Both were missed during the season. Harvey Langi was an intriguing prospect but was badly injured in a car wreck when he and his wife were rear-ended at a traffic light. The Patriots aren’t sure what they have in Langi yet, although he has potential.
At this point, Elandon Roberts is who he is. He can look tremendous one play and lost on the next. He’s a backup. Marquis Flowers played well this season and could be in line for an increased payload next year. Kyle Van Noy was the glue that held it all together. Harrison is going to be 40, and no one keeps themselves in better physical condition or works harder than he does. If there is a doubt check out his Instagram page. But playing one of the most physical positions at 40 is really tough. Can he hold up physically over 16 games and the playoffs?
Bottom Line: The Patriots appealed to Harrison and vice versa. The team liked what he brought to the table and he feels he can still contribute. He told Mike Reiss of ESPN, that he wants to play until he is 40 or 41. I don’t believe money will be an issue with Harrison this season. He’s made some good money and now he wants a chance to compete for another championship while getting another season or two in the sun.
There may not be a big market for a 40-year old linebacker despite what transpired in New England at the end of the season, so the team won’t have to outbid many other would-be suitors.
Had the injury situations with Hightower, McClellan, and Langi be different, I could easily see the team opt to bring Harrison back for a short-term contract and let him play out his career in a place where he can still contribute 15-25 snaps a game. But the current situation that exists in New England right now may preclude that. There are far too many questions lingering at the linebacker position. So, it is the opinion here that the team will go for an injection of youth and athleticism at the position. And sadly I think the chances are better than 50/50 that Harrison won’t be brought back.
As the New England Patriots continue the process of moving on from the 2017 season, linebacker Marquis Flowers took to his Twitter account Monday to try and clear the air with those criticizing himself and his team in the aftermath of Super Bowl LII.
Beginning with an article in the Boston Sports Journal by Greg Bedard that viewed Flowers Super Bowl performance as worse than the issue with Malcolm Butler’s benching, Flowers defended his head coaches decision making while also holding himself accountable for a bad game.
When a fan pushed Flowers further on defending Belichick with a tweet that read “so you believe your teammate malcolm butler who you worked with all year the blood sweat and tears he didnt deserve to play???? did u tell him that marquis??” Flowers reiterated how those decisions were out of his control.
The Patriots addressed their depth at linebacker and on special teams on Tuesday morning when it was announced that they traded a 7th round draft pick for LB Marquis Flowers from the Cincinnati Bengals.
Flowers was drafted by the Bengals in the 6th Round (212th Overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Arizona. The 6’3, 245-pound Flowers is an athletic player who is more comfortable outside on the edge than he is inside. He can cover and has the range to run with more athletic players. He’s been used as strictly a special teams’ player for the Bengals, playing only two snaps on defense last year. With their Special Teams’ standouts having been hurt this summer, including Harvey Langi, Shea McClellin, and Geneo Grissom, Flowers will step right into a key role right away. That was apparent in Tuesday’s practice as he stepped into the starting ST’s unit.
Why is this move significant? Well, that depends on your perspective. With many of the special team’s players banged up and facing the Kansas City Chiefs with the dangerous return game with Tyreek Hill, the coaching staff will want their most athletic players on the field. But this may go even deeper than that.
This may be a signal that the Patriots are planning on cutting their ties to two of their more dynamic special teams’ players in Brandon Bolden and Jordan Richards. Bolden has been a standout STs performer for years but is just in a position that is log jammed with talent.
Richards, on the other hand, has been a disappointment. They’ve tried him at different positions on the defense and he hasn’t been able to make a positive impression. This could be a signal that one or the other, perhaps both may be on the block.
But for Flowers, he’s young, athletic and can step into a core special teams’ role immediately. And he’s able to step up and play some defense as well.
While many on social media were thinking that Flowers is a camp body for the 4th preseason game, I disagree. I think he’s pretty much a lock. They need some athleticism on their STs units with KC coming into town. And he’ll give them that and be able to play some defense as well in the team’s sub-packages. The Patriots have made a trade, albeit a minor one but one which will have some impact, at least in the first few weeks of the season.