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New England Patriots

By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com

There’s no shortage of promising young linebackers on the Patriots roster. With the likes of Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Terez Hall, and more, the team has invested heavily at the position in recent years.

However, linebacker is one of those positions where experience can be a major benefit. As of right now, the team projects to have only two players at the position with more than a year of NFL experience under their belt. That includes Dont’a Hightower, who has been rumored to be considering retirement, and Ja’Whaun Bentley, who has played just 31 NFL games and will be entering the final year of his contract. 

Brandon Copeland and Shilique Calhoun served a veteran role for the Patriots in 2020, but both are pending free agents. 

It would be shocking if the Patriots didn’t add at linebacker at all through free agency this season. The real question is what both the quality and quantity of those additions will be. 

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 25: Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers is tackled by Ja’Whaun Bentley #51 of the New England Patriots during their NFL game at Gillette Stadium on October 25, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

If Bill Belichick wants to make a splash – and he’ll have the cap space to do so – this year projects to be quite the splash-worthy class at the position. Von Miller, Bud Dupree, and Matt Judon are just a few of the upper-echelon names that could be available. Bringing in a player of that caliber would provide a much needed boost to the Patriots’ front seven, while allowing the younger guys like Uche another year to develop without having to fill significant roles. 

Keep in mind, such a move would be wildly out of character for Bill Belichick. He hasn’t paid top dollar for an external free agent linebacker since 2007, when he gave Adalius Thomas a five-year, $35 million contract. Even before Thomas, such signings were a rarity in New England under Belichick. That being said, if there’s any year to break trends and think outside of the box, this is it. 

The other option is to bring in multiple veterans like Copeland and Calhoun (including those two themselves as options). Have them compete in camp, and those who make the roster can play reserve roles while being mentors to the younger players. That’s how Belichick has approached things in the past, and has found a few gems along the way. 

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – SEPTEMBER 20: Brandon Copeland #52 of the New England Patriots and Stephon Gilmore #24 tackle Chris Carson #32 of the Seattle Seahawks during the first half at CenturyLink Field on September 20, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Of course, there’s some middle ground between the two. There’s nothing stopping the team from bringing in a big name, while simultaneously adding two or three veterans for at or near minimum contracts to compete for one spot on the roster.

A final layer of complication here is that while the Patriots have plenty of youth on the edge, there’s still the matter of filling the downhill, run stopping linebacker spot when Dont’a Hightower leaves. With his contract up at the end of the 2021 season and rumors he’s considering retirement, having his replacement set is something the team needs to focus on sooner rather than later.

Bentley and Hall are both certainly candidates for that role, but neither has quite shown the ceiling necessary for a job that is as crucial as any in the Patriots’ defensive scheme. This is a need best addressed not through free agency, but with a top-100 pick in the NFL Draft. 

Both adding veteran presence and preparing for Dont’a Hightower’s departure are achievable goals, and one shouldn’t prevent the other from happening. Where they do intersect though is the fact that the Patriots will likely need to commit more roster spots to the linebacker position in 2021 than they did in 2020, when they had an unusually thin group.

Click here for 98.5 The Sports Hub’s complete coverage of the Patriots.

Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.