New England Patriots

Jan 10, 2022; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Quay Walker (7) and Nakobe Dean (17) against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2022 CFP college football national championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

  • Coming into the offseason, inside linebacker projected to be one of the Patriots’ biggest needs. However, needs change throughout the offseason process.

    As the team has seen bigger holes open up at positions like cornerback and guard, some targeted additions at the linebacker position have made the situation much more manageable. Bringing back Ja’Whaun Bentley gives them an early-down run stopper in the middle. Meanwhile, Mack Wilson joins Cameron McGrone, Raekwon McMillan, and Terez Hall as potentially contributing off the ball linebackers. The Patriots don’t need all four of those players to pan out, but they do have options at the position.

    On the outside, the Patriots could count on internal growth to replace Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. Players like Josh Uche, Anferee Jennings, and Ronnie Perkins have been in the system for multiple years, and should be poised for bigger roles.

    At the same time, that doesn’t mean they won’t or shouldn’t add at the position in the draft, both in terms of depth and potential future starters. This is an incredibly deep linebacker class, and given the way the defense is trending, it would make sense to take advantage of that depth at some point over the three days.

  • Round 1

    Nakobe Dean #17 of the Georgia Bulldogs reacts in the second half against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Sanford Stadium on October 2, 2021 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    Nakobe Dean #17 of the Georgia Bulldogs reacts in the second half against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Sanford Stadium on October 2, 2021 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    We’ve started most of these previous with a ‘reaches’ category, but there’s no true reaches for the Patriots when it comes to linebackers in this draft. While Utah’s Devin Lloyd – the top inside linebacker – and Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson – the top outside linebacker – are both projected to go relatively early, it doesn’t feel impossible for them to make it to 21, especially if there’s a run on another position like wide receiver or cornerback. They could get within trading range of the Patriots.

    Even if Lloyd and Johnson are off the board before 21, there should still be chances for the Patriots to add impact talent at both inside and outside linebacker in the first round. The big name to know – or a name may Patriots are are already familiar with – is Nakobe Dean out of Georgia.

    Dean is the ideal example of a modern middle linebacker. At 5-foot-11, 229 pounds he’s a true sideline-to-sideline player who can contribute in coverage and rush the passer. Some draft experts have also noted he has the highest football IQ of any player in this year’s draft.

    Heading into the offseason, Dean didn’t seem like a scheme fit in New England given the Patriots’ preference for bigger, downhill, run-stopping linebackers. However, recent personnel moves have suggested a change in philosophy, and suddenly Dean looks like an ideal player to build the new-look defense around. Dean has met with the Patriots multiple times during the pre-draft process.

    At outside linebacker, Michigan’s David Ojabo is suddenly a realistic target for the Patriots in terms of draft projection. A torn Achilles at his Pro Day has dropped him from a potential top 10 pick to the back end of the first round. He won’t see the field until 2023, but if he’s there at 21, would the Patriots pass on a possible top-10 talent when healthy? It’s a matter of looking at the overall value against getting immediate impact out of the player selected.

  • Round 2 ILBs

    Dec 31, 2021; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Quay Walker (7) tackles Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) during the third quarter in the Orange Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 31, 2021; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Quay Walker (7) tackles Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) during the third quarter in the Orange Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    Even if the Patriots miss on Dean, that doesn’t mean they can’t get a Georgia linebacker who can make an immediate impact. Quay Walker played next to Dean on the Bulldogs’ record-setting defense, and handled more of the downhill, run stopping roles. Still, that doesn’t mean Walker is just a north-south linebacker. He has the range to play the entire width of the field. He ran a 4.52 40 at the Combine, and his strong instincts help him play even faster than that. At 6-foot-4, 241 pounds he’s not going to get bullied in the middle of the field either.

    If the Patriots want to find a more modern version of their traditional linebacker prototype, Walker is the guy. All things considered, he may be the best pound-for-pound pick for them (literally and figuratively) at the position in the draft.

    Walker isn’t the only player in this class who fits the description of the modern version of the Patriots’ traditional middle linebacker. Wyoming’s Chad Muma is a similar kind of player. Muma is a little bit further away, as he’ll have to make the adjustment from playing in the Mountain West, but he does a terrific job of getting to the football anywhere on the field. He also showed some potential coverage upside at the Senior Bowl.

    From Wyoming to Montana, and another Senior Bowl standout in Troy Andersen. Anderson has one of the more unique backgrounds in this draft – his collegiate career began as a two-way player at running back and linebacker. He then moved to quarterback, and was named an all-conference player at the position. He then moved back to linebacker full time, and ended up being named an FCS All-American and Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, as well as the runner-up for the Buck Buchanan award, given to the most outstanding defensive player in FCS.

    Feb 2, 2022; Mobile, AL, USA; National squad linebacker Troy Andersen of Montana State (45) talks with National squad linebacker Sterling Weatherford of Miami (OH) (12) during National team practice for the 2022 Senior Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

    Feb 2, 2022; Mobile, AL, USA; National squad linebacker Troy Andersen of Montana State (45) talks with National squad linebacker Sterling Weatherford of Miami (OH) (12) during National team practice for the 2022 Senior Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

    Unsurprisingly given that background, Anderson is a terrific athlete. He ran a 4.42 40 at the Combine, which was the best by any linebacker. He also recorded a 36″ vertical and 10’8″ broad jump. The Patriots have historically targeted players who have played multiple positions throughout their career, as it helps them see the field differently. That’s clearly an element of Andersen’s game at times.

    The real old school, downhill linebacker in this class is Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal. Chenal checked in at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds at the Combine, and showed his explosive ability with a 40.5″ vertical, which was the second-best among linebackers. He doesn’t have the same lateral movement ability as some of the other players on this list, but he’ll be an early-down factor against the run.

    Then again, the Patriots could go the complete other direction, and add a true blitz/coverage linebacker that would be more of a fit with what looks to be a switch to a more zone-based scheme. In the second round, that guy is Christian Harris out of Alabama. Harris profiles similarly to Dean at 6-foot, 226 pounds. He was a three year starter for the Tide, so he’s likely on the Patriots’ radar.

    The Patriots have met with every player in this group at some point during the pre-draft process, excluding Chenal.

  • Round 2 OLBs

    OU's Nik Bonitto (11) lines up during a 16-13 win against West Virginia on Sept. 25 in Norman. (Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/USA Today Network)

    OU’s Nik Bonitto (11) lines up during a 16-13 win against West Virginia on Sept. 25 in Norman. (Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/USA Today Network)

    Will the Patriots add another edge player on Day 2, as they’ve done in each of the past three years? Just like at middle linebacker, the second round has plenty of talent at the outside spots.

    These player draft projections are as of the time these pieces are written. By the time the draft rolls around, Minnesota’s Boye Mafe may work himself into the late-first round conversation. In some systems, Mafe may play end but he projects as more as a strong side pass rushing outside linebacker. Mafe is a natural athlete who can drive himself into a tackle and collapse a pocket. There are also flashes of potential coverage ability working against running backs on his tape. Selecting Mafe would be in line with the developmental edge rushers the Patriots tend to take on Day 2. Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network compares Mafe to Josh Uche.

    Arnold Ebiketie is another fringe first-round pick at the position. In fact, ESPN’s Mel Kiper had the Patriots taking him at 21 in a mock draft last month. Ebiketie would be a logical replacement for Kyle Van Noy as a strong-side edge setter or coverage option on passing downs, who should develop into a three-down player once he gets into an NFL weight room. However, drafting Ebiketie would buck a long-time Patriots draft trend – he’s a Penn State player, and they’ve only taken one Nittany Lion (G Rich Ohrnberger, 2009 4th round) in Bill Belichick’s tenure.

    How about a program the Patriots have been high on the last few years in Oklahoma? Nik Bonitto played a big role in filling the spot vacated by 2021 Patriots draft pick Ronnie Perkins. He had a productive 2021 with 15 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in 11 games, and was named a second-team All-American. Bonitto then impressed at the Combine, running a 4.54 40 and finishing top three in both agility drills. The Patriots have targeted raw athleticism on the edge in the past, and Bonitto fits that bill. He could come in and contribute as a pass rush specialist, with a chance to develop into a three-down player.

    Drake Jackson out of USC was at one point viewed as a first-round pick, but his stock has dipped since the Combine. Jackson is another impressive raw athlete, who projects as a pass rush specialist initially.

  • Round 3 ILBs

    Oct 8, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Darrian Beavers (0) reacts after tackling Temple Owls quarterback D'Wan Mathis (not pictured) in the first half at Nippert Stadium. Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

    Oct 8, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Darrian Beavers (0) reacts after tackling Temple Owls quarterback D’Wan Mathis (not pictured) in the first half at Nippert Stadium. Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

    When it comes to the draft, sometimes the Patriots like to zig while every other team zags. With so many linebackers expected to go in the top 50, could they wait and grab a player just inside the top-100 as a value pick?

    If they go that route, Channing Tindall would be the top option. Yes, another Georgia linebacker. Even while playing alongside Dean and Walker, Tindall managed to be very productive in 2021 – his lone year as a starter. He recorded 67 tackles with 7.5 going for a loss, including 5.5 sacks.

    Tindall is an impressive athlete (4.47 40, 42″ vertical jump) at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. He’s one of those players that’s just very well rounded. There’s no standout trait in his game, but not many true weaknesses either. That would seemingly make him a fit for what appears to be a new-look Patriots defense that projects to ask a lot out of the linebacker position.

    The throwback linebacker option in this range is Darian Beavers out of Cincinnati. Beavers played the season at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds but trimmed down to 237 for the Combine – his NFL playing weight will likely be somewhere in between. He played his downhill role well for the Bearcats in 2021, with 98 tackles in 14 games. That included 11 tackles for a loss and four sacks.

    From old school to new school, Brian Asamoah II is a smaller more athletic linebacker from an Oklahoma program the Patriots seemed to trust last year. Asamoah plays bigger than his 6-foot, 226 pound frame and is a surprisingly good tackler in space. He can track the run and cover in zone from sideline to sideline, with some potential flexibility to play outside linebacker as well.

  • Round 3 OLBs

    Tulsa Golden Hurricane quarterback Davis Brin (7) evades pressure Cincinnati Bearcats defensive lineman Myjai Sanders (21) in the fourth quarter during an NCAA football game, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won, 28-20. (Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer/USA Today Network)

    Tulsa Golden Hurricane quarterback Davis Brin (7) evades pressure Cincinnati Bearcats defensive lineman Myjai Sanders (21) in the fourth quarter during an NCAA football game, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won, 28-20. (Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer/USA Today Network)

    As we turn our attention to a couple of pass rush specialists the Patriots could take towards the end of Day 2, let’s stay with Cincinnati. Although he only came away with 2.5 sacks in 2021, Myjai Sanders regularly found his way into the opposing backfield to disrupt offenses. He’s a pure speed rusher who will need to bulk up at the next level (his Combine measurements were 6-foot-5, 228 pounds, although he was sick the week leading up to the event), but his athleticism gives up the upside of being a third-down playmaker – especially as NFL quarterbacks get faster and faster.

  • Early Day 3 ILBs

    COLLEGE STATION, TX - SEPTEMBER 18: Linebacker Aaron Hansford #1 of the Texas A&M Aggies celebrates a stop during the first quarter of the game against New Mexico Lobos at Kyle Field on September 18, 2021 in College Station, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

    COLLEGE STATION, TX – SEPTEMBER 18: Linebacker Aaron Hansford #1 of the Texas A&M Aggies celebrates a stop during the first quarter of the game against New Mexico Lobos at Kyle Field on September 18, 2021 in College Station, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

    Aaron Hansford is another one of these modern, dynamic middle linebackers that excels at playing down hill but has more to his game. At 6-foot-2, 239 pounds he’s not going to be giving up any size when he meets running backs in the hole, but has shown an ability to play sideline-to-sideline as well. His coverage game is still developing,

    Hansford arrived at Texas A&M as a wide receiver, and didn’t begin playing linebacker until his junior year in 2019. As expected, his technical game is still developing. The Patriots met with Hansford at the Senior Bowl and the Combine.

  • Early Day 3 OLBs

    Sep 6, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Mississippi Rebels defensive lineman Sam Williams (7) in action against the Louisville Cardinals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    Sep 6, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Mississippi Rebels defensive lineman Sam Williams (7) in action against the Louisville Cardinals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    Sam Williams had fantastic production at a big-time program, setting an Ole Miss single-season record with 12.5 sacks in 13 games in 2021. Even with that performance, Williams still has room to grow his game. At the Combine, Williams ran a 4.46 40 at 6-foot-4, 261 pounds. With that frame, he could grow into a three-down player. Right now though, he’s got Year 1 potential to be a factor as a pass rush specialist.

    Another really interesting prospect in this range is DeAngelo Malone out of Western Kentucky. Malone is a two-time C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, winning the award in 2019 and 2021. Last season, he had 17.5 tackles for a loss and 8 sacks in 14 games. As a weakside defender, he has the speed, motor, and instincts to get into the backfield and make chase down tackles at 6-foot-3, 243 pounds. He could be a valuable situational player against mobile quarterbacks. Eliot Wolf, the Patriots’ director of scouting, was in attendance at the Malones’ Pro Day earlier this month.

  • Late Day 3 ILBs

    Nov 20, 2021; College Park, Maryland, USA; Michigan Wolverines linebacker Josh Ross (12) tackles Maryland Terrapins running back Peny Boone (13) during the first half at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 20, 2021; College Park, Maryland, USA; Michigan Wolverines linebacker Josh Ross (12) tackles Maryland Terrapins running back Peny Boone (13) during the first half at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    At this point in the draft, especially at linebacker, the Patriots are looking more for high-upside players with strong intangibles. Special teams ability may also be key.

    That would make Colorado’s Nate Landman a very logical choice. Landman was a five-year starter and three-time team captain. He recorded 104 tackles in 2018 and 113 tackles in 2019 before tearing his Achilles in 2020. He bounced back with 63 tackles in seven games last year, and showed tremendous value in diagnosing plays before the snap. Landman ran a 4.86 40 at 6-foot-2, 238 pounds at the Combine, a time and size that projects him as a contributor in the kicking game. The Patriots could play him in that role and see how he develops as a linebacker.

    Josh Ross fits a similar profile, coming out of a Michigan program the Patriots tend to favor. Scouts rave about his leadership ability, and he was a two-time captain for the Wolverines. He had 106 tackles including nine for losses in 14 games last year, mostly as an early down run stopper. He’ll need to bulk up to play that role at the NFL level (he measured 6-foot, 227 pounds at the Combine), but does have some rotational upside.

  • Late Day 3 OLBs

    Oct 31, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama linebacker Christopher Allen (4) sacks Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers (2) for a loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

    Oct 31, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama linebacker Christopher Allen (4) sacks Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers (2) for a loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

    Does this list feel light on Alabama players so far? Let’s change that by adding Christopher Allen. Allen showed flashes of talent at times at Alabama, but managed to play just 19 games over four years while battling multiple injuries. In his one full season in 2020, he has 13 tackles for a loss and six sacks in 11 games. A foot injury suffered in the season opener in 2021 ended up costing him the whole season. His game is still incredibly raw given his lack of playing time, but as a project pick outside the top-200, he’d make sense as a high-upside investment.

    Throughout this draft preview series, we’ve highlighted a handful of players that made major strides in the 2021 season, given how the Patriots have a tendency to value players that show they’re on the upswing. At linebacker, that could be Jeremiah Moon out of Florida. Moon is 6-foot-5, 249 pounds and really took advantage of his size for the first time last season. Florida played him both on the edge and at middle linebacker, and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t bring that positional versatility to the NFL. He projects as an instant contributor in the kicking game, and with the right coaching could be a passing down linebacker that can play multiple spots on the field.

  • UDFAs

    Oct 5, 2019; Annapolis, MD, USA; Navy Midshipmen linebacker Diego Fagot (54) looks towards the back field during the second quarter against the Air Force Falcons at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    Coming out of the ‘typical Patriot’ category is Navy middle linebacker Diego Fagot. Fagot was a captain for the Midshipmen in 2021 – his third year as a starter – and he recorded 94 tackles, with 11 for a loss. He projects as an early-down only run-stopping player on defense, but should be able to cover kicks as well.

    While Fagot is a ‘typical Patriot’ because of his background, Arron Mosby from Fresno State fits in the category for his versatility. Mosby joined the Bulldogs in 2017 as a safety, then moved to cornerback as a Sophomore. Over the next two years, he’d add 30 pounds and began playing linebacker. This past season, he moved all the way up front and started playing defensive end. He projects mainly as an outside linebacker in the Patriots’ system, but given his multi-positional experience there’s a number of ways they could use him on both defense and special teams.