With the NFL Draft officially over, the New England Patriots are officially on to 2018 and looking to improve from their AFC-winning 2017 squad. The Patriots staff has already broken down the cornerback, safety, running back, offensive line, and wide receiver positions. Now, we turn to the New England Patriots linebackers, and the players who will make up the depth chart.
Breaking Down the New England Patriots Linebacker Position
The Undisputed Starters: Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy
The biggest addition to the 2018 linebackers comes in the return of star linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Hightower missed the majority of the 2017 season due to injuries, and there’s no overstating just how important he is to the Patriots linebacker core.
When healthy, he’s the teams best defensive player. He’s an absolute monster against the run, never missed tackles, and is a nightmare to defend on A-gap blitzes. He’s also one of the teams best edge defenders and is capable of setting the edge against the run, something the Patriots mightily struggled with last season. While dropping into coverage isn’t his strongest trait, he can align against running backs and tight ends and hold his own to an extent.
With Hightower out, Kyle Van Noy took the lead linebacker role and did a phenomenal job with the position. While he wasn’t able to fully emulate Hightower’s high standard of play, he was more than capable of holding the defense together. He could do everything just well enough to keep the defense from falling apart. The linebacker position is one of the most important in the Patriots defense, and New England’s defense drastically underperformed without Van Noy on the field.
While adding another high-caliber linebacker would have been nice, these two are more than capable of leading the linebacker core. Hightower’s a top-ten linebacker in the league, and Van Noy’s no slouch himself. As long as these two are on the field together, the Patriots defense should function well.
Almost a Lock: Marquis Flowers
One of the silvers linings of the injury-plagued 2017 season was the emergence of linebacker Marquis Flowers. Flowers joined the team just one week before the season opener, arriving via a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals.
During his Bengals career, Cincinnati used the highly athletic linebacker almost exclusively as a special teamer. When first joining the Patriots, Flowers retained his special team role. However, as injuries piled up, Flowers started to see time on the starting defense, and he immediately impressed.
Flowers athleticism was a welcome addition to a linebacker core that lacked speed and explosiveness. Flowers was easily the best pass rushing linebacker left standing in the playoffs, and he had the ability to drop into coverage and hold his own against tight ends and running backs. In many ways, he has a very similar skill set to former Patriot Jamie Collins, although he doesn’t have nearly the same ceiling.
Flowers is still relatively new to the defensive scene, so there’s a chance his strong 2017 was nothing more than a fluke. However, that seems unlikely. Flowers has all the physical tools to succeed, and Bill Belichick liked him enough to re-sign him. Flowers should be a solid third linebacker whose weaknesses can be covered by Hightower and Van Noy’s strengths.
Fighting for Two Spots: Elandon Roberts, Christian Sam, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Harvey Langi
The Patriots will likely carry five linebackers and the top three positions are practically set in stone. That leaves rookies Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam battling incumbents Harvey Langi and Elandon Roberts for two spots on the final roster.
Of the four, Sam should have the inside track on taking the first roster spot. While Bentley and Roberts are fairly redundant on the roster, Sam offers a versatility the other two don’t. While Sam isn’t the strongest run defender, he excels at spreading out wide and covering tight ends and running backs. No other linebacker on the roster has that type of skill set, and it showed in last years defense. The unit constantly struggled against running backs in space, and Sam’s presence should go a long way in fixing that.
The grand majority of linebacker Harvey Langi’s rookie season was lost to a tragic car accident. While he and his wife were in critical condition, both survived and are in good health. Despite his health, it’s unlikely Langi will see time on the 2018 Patriots. Missing most of last season hurt his development, and he didn’t put much on tape before his tragic accident. It’s not fair by any means, but Langi’s absence from football may have caused him to fall too far down the depth chart.
Elandon Roberts vs. Ja’Whaun Bentley
The battle between Bentley and Roberts should go down to the wire. There may be no player outside of Jordan Richards who takes more heat than Roberts, and most of it is undeserved. When utilized in the proper role, Roberts can be an effective depth piece at linebacker. He’s a great north-south player, and while he sometimes attacks the wrong hole, he is a sound tackler. Essentially, he’s a poor mans Brandon Spikes.
The problem with Roberts lies when he’s asked to do more than that. He’s very slow in space and doesn’t have much lateral quickness. When he’s asked to start, his flaws get exposed, and teams can easily pick on him. With all the injuries at linebacker, Roberts played a bigger role in 2017, and thus his flaws were exposed.
Most of what was stated about Roberts reigns true for Bentley. Like Roberts, he’s best when aligned in the middle of the field and attaching the offensive line up the middle. Also like Roberts, he struggles in space and is weak in coverage. Obviously, he’s never played in the NFL, so he’s more of a mystery than Roberts. However, based on his college tape, he appears to be nothing more than a solid early-down depth linebacker
Last Word on Linebackers
Final Roster (five) – Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Marquis Flowers, Christian Sam, Elandon Roberts
The toughest decision with this group is whether to go with Roberts or Bentley for the final roster spot. While Roberts has been underwhelming at times, he still is a useful depth piece (although he should never be a starter).
Additionally, Bentley has the harder path to the final roster simply because that’s the best way to keep both players. As a fifth-round rookie, Bentley has practice squad eligibility and would probably be fairly easy to sneak through waivers.
As a third-year veteran, Roberts has a significantly bigger target on his back. Say what you will for his weaknesses, but he still is a piece of a team that made it to two straight Super Bowls. If cut, somebody would probably claim him, if for no other reason than to kick the tires on the bruising linebacker.
Main Photo:Embed from Getty Images