New England Patriots

The Patriots could use improvements in several areas of their roster, but linebacker may be the deepest and most glaring issue. And even with the return of defensive captain Dont’a Hightower, the Pats are going to need reinforcements if they want the defense to get any better than it was in 2017.

Although the secondary drew the most attention for the Patriots defense getting torched in Super Bowl LII, that happened in large part because of the absence of Malcolm Butler. At linebacker, you were watching starters. Regulars. And of course, they didn’t fare much better than the defensive backs.

All due respect to Marquis Flowers, he’s not best used in downfield coverage against dynamic receiving backs like Corey Clement. Elandon Roberts has some speed and has flashed good run-stopping ability at times, but he was far too inconsistent and mistake-prone in 2017. The 2016 sixth-round pick may yet improve in year three, but his ceiling does not appear any higher than a decent run-stopper.

Kyle Van Noy? He performed admirably as the replacement signal-caller once Hightower went down with a season-ending pectoral injury. Van Noy knows the defense and plays a responsible game, but he’s simply not the caliber of talent you want as a top-2 linebacker on the depth chart.

Reinforcements Needed

Corey Clement of the Philadelphia Eagles catches a 22-yard touchdown pass against Marquis Flowers and Devin McCourty Super Bowl LII. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Corey Clement of the Philadelphia Eagles catches a 22-yard touchdown pass against Marquis Flowers and Devin McCourty Super Bowl LII. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

With Hightower back in the fold, the rest of the Patriots linebackers can slide back a spot to assume roles that won’t have them playing over their heads. But ideally, they’re moving down two spots. In a perfect world, the Patriots add legit talent to that group if only to mitigate for the inevitable loss of Hightower for at least a few games.

If and when No. 54 goes down again, the linebackers can’t go in the tank. They need help. And they may not even have Flowers back next season. But fortunately, they’ll have some potential options on the free-agent market to make a real upgrade.

It’ll be complicated for the Patriots to find fits for their needs at linebacker. That’s because they could add pretty much any kind of linebacker and get a marked upgrade. The group they had at the end of the season struggled against both the run and the pass, and contributed practically nothing in terms of pressure on the quarterback. So it would be hard to find a linebacker out there who could not help the Pats. But it would probably be in their best interest to find someone who can cover running backs and tight ends if needed.

On the market…

Preston Brown of the Buffalo Bills (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Preston Brown of the Buffalo Bills (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

One of the top names in this year’s free-agent class among linebackers is the Bills’ Preston Brown. The 25-year-old made headlines last week due to his interest in joining the Patriots. No word that the interest is mutual, but Brown would certainly step right in and be a legitimate factor as an inside ‘backer for Bill Belichick.

Brown is primarily a strong tackler against the run, which would make him a clear upgrade over Roberts. He led the league with 144 tackles last season, which he partially attributed to dropping fast food from his diet and losing over 10 pounds. He’s been inconsistent as a coverage linebacker, but has improved – as you can see in this article that spotlights how he handled the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce over the middle of the field.

If Brown were to become the latest Bills player to jump sip and join the Patriots, he’d immediately become a very good No. 2 linebacker for the Patriots. It would also allow for them to park Hightower on the line more often and use No. 54 as a pass-rusher, an area where he’s always been sneaky-effective. They may still need to find a linebacker who can be more reliable in coverage, but Brown is familiar with the Patriots and would solve a lot of problems for the defense.

Who else is out there?

Nigel Bradham celebrates the Philadelphia Eagles' win over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Nigel Bradham celebrates the Philadelphia Eagles’ win over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

If the Patriots don’t sign Brown, they’d still have plenty of options if they want to get more athletic and better in coverage at linebacker. The Titans’ Avery Williamson (25 years old) is another strong tackler who can also cover. They just got a good look at the Eagles’ Nigel Bradham in the Super Bowl, and the 28-year-old would be an immediate upgrade against the run and in coverage. And the Lions’ Tahir Whitehead (27 years old) could be available if he’s not interested in staying in Detroit with new head coach Matt Patricia.

The Pats may still want to prioritize stopping the run and being stronger up front with their linebackers. In that case, maybe they take a look at the Broncos’ Todd Davis. The Cowboys’ Anthony Hitchens could also have some untapped potential as a run-stuffer.

Ideally the Patriots get younger and more athletic at linebacker, not older. But if Belichick really wants to add a veteran who will at least “do his job,” then perhaps 35-year-old Derrick Johnson gets a look. The Jaguars’ Paul Posluzny and the Eagles’ Dannell Ellerbe will also be out there.

What To Expect

Ultimately, this defense doesn’t need leadership. It needs talent and athleticism – and durability, too. Preston Brown would certainly bring the last part. The team will have a handful of dynamic linebackers to choose from if they decide to take that route in free agency. And the hope is that they do, because they can’t go into the 2018 season with the same group and expect a different result.

— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.