By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Flash back to October, and linebacker may have been the strongest positional group of the Patriots roster. Five months removed from the Boogeymen, it’s looking like the team will need to redo, if not overall the position.
Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy faded down the stretch, but their early season performances likely priced them out of the Patriots plans as they hit the open market. Elandon Roberts has also hit the end of his rookie deal and has a chance to become a free agent for the first time.
That doesn’t mean the Patriots are left with nothing. Dont’a Hightower is expected to be back in the middle of the defense. 2018 fifth-round pick Ja’Whaun Bentley has proven he should be able to handle an increased role at the second level. 2019 third-round pick Chase Winovich should play more off the edge.
So should the Patriots pay big money to a linebacker? On one hand, Collins and Van Noy had crucial roles in the Patriots defense. However, Bill Belichick has a history of finding players who thrive in those roles at a discount. Given their myriad of other needs, especially on the offensive side of the ball, Belichick finding another gem would be huge.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. If you can ‘project’ hidden gems, they wouldn’t be hidden. One possibility could be Carl Nassib. Instantly, his frame jumps out. At 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, he’s going to win in leverage against just about any other player. He adds a combination of strength and speed that should make him a true threat off the edge. Nassib’s skill abilities are still raw, although he’s come a long way in his four years in the league.
After spending his first two years with the Browns, Nassib was claimed off waivers by the Buccaneers in 2018 and shifted from a pure defensive end to more of an outside linebacker role. Last season, he recorded eight tackles for a loss and six sacks despite playing just 56 percent of Tampa’s defensive snaps.
Other draws for the Patriots? Nassib has a previous relationship with the Belichick tree, he played at Penn State when Bill O’Brien was the head coach. He also has shown mentality and leadership the Patriots covet, highlighted by being named a captain of the Buccaneers at age 25 after just one year in the organization.
With the right coaching and an expanded role, Nassib could be a real problem for NFL offenses. That situation exists in New England.
Another option in replacing Collins and Van Noy could be moving Hightower to an edge roll, as the team has done in the past. That leaves Bentley as the team’s main second-level linebacker. While he’s shown promise in limited action over the last two years, it would be important to have veteran accompaniment in this scenario.
If that’s the route the team goes down, A.J. Klein would be a great fit, albeit slightly more expensive. Klein plays the game physically and has great instincts, both keys to playing in the middle of the Patriots defense.
If they want a cheaper option than Klein, Alec Ogletree has the potential to be a classic Patriots reclamation project. The Georgia product has never quite lived up to his first-round draft selection, and fell into a reserve role last year with the Giants.
Still, he’s an athletic, versatile option off the edge who could thrive with the right coaching and system. If they can get him to sign a team-friendly, incentive-heavy contract, Ogletree would be a really interesting story to follow in camp.
It’s not a great class for linebackers unless you’re willing to pay top dollar. The Patriots may be better off bringing back Elandon Roberts and drafting/trading for support off the edge. Still, Belichick usually likes to bring a few guys into camp on prove-it deals at the position, and given the total roster makeup don’t expect this year to be any different.