New England Patriots

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JANUARY 10: Nakobe Dean #17 of the Georgia Bulldogs runs with the ball into the end zone during the first quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2022 CFP National Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 10, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The play was overturned after replay review. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The Patriots are in desperate need of quality linebackers this offseason. There is defensive talent in the draft, which marks one avenue for the team to address arguably its greatest area of need.

In his latest mock draft for ESPN, ESPN’s Todd McShay projects that New England will draft linebacker Nakobe Dean out of Georgia with the 21st overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Dean elevated his play in his junior season at Georgia that culminated in a National Championship win over Alabama. At six-foot and 225 pounds, Dean can interrupt the game in a variety of ways on the defensive side of the football. The linebacker set a career-high with 72 tackles, including 10.5 for loss with six sacks. Dean also forced two fumbles and intercepted two passes, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

New England already released Kyle Van Noy, while Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley are both set to become free agents. A thin group that lacked productivity down the stretch next season needs playmakers to spark an immediate impact in 2022. Dean comes from a championship defense and offers versatility in his skillset to help New England if they should take him at this spot.

Patriots veterans provide clarity on their football future

  • Devin McCourty

    Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (32) celebrates after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (32) celebrates after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    McCourty’s contract situation differs from Slater and Hightower, as the safety currently has a void year in his contract. He will either need a new deal or will enter free agency, but will count against the cap either way. Spotrac lists McCourty at $6.45 million against the cap in 2022.

    The 12-year veteran still serves as one of the Patriots’ top leaders, both on and off the field. New England has depth at safety with talented players in Kyle Dugger and the recently extended Adrian Phillips. The dilemma is that neither of them play as much of a free safety role in center field like McCourty does. If McCourty does depart, the Patriots will need to find a true free safety to fill his spot with the starters on defense.

  • Dont’a Hightower

    Linebacker Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots reacts after making a defensive play in the second quarter of the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 19, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    Linebacker Dont’a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots reacts after making a defensive play in the second quarter of the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 19, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    After returning from opting out of the 2020 season, Hightower returned as a leader for New England, but struggled at times on the field due to his age and diminishing speed.

    While it was more orientated for cap space, the Patriots have already moved on from one veteran linebacker with the release of Kyle Van Noy. Hightower could be the least likely of the three to return.

    The Patriots are due for a major overhaul in the linebacking core as a result of poor execution in the second half of the season, as well as Hightower and Ja’whaun Bentley being on track for free agency. If Hightower and McCourty are not Patriots in 2022, the team will also need to identify who will wear the green dot on their helmet to distribute defensive play calls from the sideline.

  • Matthew Slater

    Matthew Slater #18 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a missed field goal by the New York Jets during the first half at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Matthew Slater #18 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a missed field goal by the New York Jets during the first half at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Out of the three players, Slater would be the easiest to bring back in his cornerstone special teams role. Slater could return for a deal in the range of one or two years, for around $2 million annually. As a team captain and prominent voice in the locker room, Slater is an invaluable figure within the team and the organization.

    Slater joins Brandon King, Brandon Bolden, and Gunner Olszewski as viable special teams players without contracts (Olszewski is a restricted free agent). The Patriots will have to address this area of the team and will determine if Slater will lead through his high-caliber play in the third phase of the game.

    These three players already have their Patriot legacies set in stone. The next few weeks will answer whether those legacies will live on into next season.