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SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 20: Kyle Van Noy #53 and Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots react after Van Noy made a tackle against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Last year’s Patriots linebacker group was defined by one trait – youth. There certainly was – and still is – upside among the team’s linebackers, but last year’s unit lacked the experience normally seen on a Bill Belichick defense. 

Four of the team’s five most-used linebackers last season were in their first or second full year in the NFL. The fifth was Shilique Calhoun, who had mostly been a special teams player to that point. Ja’Whaun Bentley had the most defensive experience of the group, with just 19 NFL games under his belt.

This season, the script has been flipped. Between signing Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy, and the return of Dont’a Hightower from his opt-out, the Patriots can now pair their young players with established veteran talent.

Although the money given to Judon and Van Noy may make them seem like flashier additions, Hightower’s presence should have the biggest impact. Lost in the youth movement up front last season was the ability to diagnose and adjust to what the offense was showing pre-snap. While Devin McCourty provided ‘the answers to the test’ on the back end, there was nobody in the front seven with similar experience. That changes when Hightower steps on the field.

Patriots 2021 Positional Previews: QuarterbackRunning Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Cornerback | Safety

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 abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.