With training camp less than two weeks away, I will be continuing my breakdown of the New England Patriots‘ 2018 roster by looking at the linebacker group.
(Note: Brandon King practices and meets with the linebackers, but has not yet played a snap on defense in his NFL career. I will classify him as a linebacker for the purposes of this article, but he will not be a factor on defense whatsoever this season).
If the Patriots’ defensive end group was their worst unit last year, their linebackers weren’t too far behind. After losing veteran Shea McClellin to a concussion during training camp, rookie Harvey Langi to injuries sustained in a car crash, and captain Dont’a Hightower to a torn pectoral muscle in Week 5, it became evident that the team just simply did not have enough quality talent at the position. Kyle Van Noy stood out in a few games, picking up some of Hightower’s responsibilities, but suffered a leg injury towards the end of the season that kept him out for a few games and likely limited him during the playoffs. Roberts, who is best suited as a two-down run defender, was forced into a starting role and struggled mightily in coverage. David Harris was reportedly a great veteran locker room presence, but his lack of speed often made him a liability on the field. Marquis Flowers flashed towards the end of the year as a quarterback spy/pass coverage specialist, wasn’t on the field enough to make as big of an impact as he could have. Jordan Richards was used occasionally as a dime linebacker to cover running backs out of the backfield, but consistently struggled in that role. Patrick Chung may actually have been the Patriots best linebacker last year, as he was often used as the sixth or seventh man in the box against the run while also covering the opposing team’s tight end.
Despite not making many improvements at the position during the offseason, Hightower’s return should help to at least make the group serviceable. The defensive captain will no doubt solidify the team’s run defense at the second level, and can also be moved to the edge in order to help out against outside runs or rush the passer. Van Noy will likely benefit from playing next to Hightower, as he will be freed from the defensive play-calling responsibilities while also being able to chase after the ball carrier more often.
After those two however, the positional outlook becomes a bit less certain.
Brandon King is a roster lock solely because he is a core special teamer. But again, he will likely not see a defensive snap this year.
Langi is battling for a roster spot during training camp, but he flashed enough potential both on-and-off the line on defense as well as on special teams to make the initial 53-man roster. His versatility will likely secure him a roster spot this year.
I believe that Marquis Flowers is the best remaining linebacker out of the group and will greatly benefit from having a full offseason and training camp with the team, but it does appear that the coaching staff likes Elandon Roberts better. That being said, his role as a core special teamer last year will likely be enough for him to make the roster.
Rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley is a two-down run stuffer in the same mold as Roberts, so it is possible that the two are battling for just one spot as the two-down linebacker. On the other hand, it is also possible that both make it at the expense of someone like Flowers; it will all come down to how they perform in training camp and the preseason.
Rookie Christian Sam has potential as another pass coverage specialist similar to Flowers, but he will likely need to really impress during training camp to beat out the other guys.
Nicholas Grigsby was used almost exclusively as a special teams replacement for Nate Ebner last year, so Ebner’s return this season likely means that they have no more need for Grigsby. But again, as none of these spots are solidified, a solid training camp performance could earn him a roster spot.
Roster (6): Ja’Whaun Bentley, Marquis Flowers, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon King, Harvey Langi, Kyle van Noy
Practice Squad (1): Christian Sam
Cut (2): Nicholas Grigsby, Elandon Roberts (to practice squad if he clears waivers)
In the end, I really have no clue about how this positional battle will play out. It’s possible that they go run-defense heavy with Roberts and Bentley, while it’s equally possible that neither crack the initial roster. Keep an eye on how this situation develops throughout August.
Stay tuned next week, as I will discuss the Patriots’ cornerbacks!