New England Patriots: Post-Free Agency Needs on Defense
By Hal Bent
Newly Added/Retained: Dont’a Hightower (UFA)
Need Level: Medium-Low
The big piece at linebacker was captain Dont’a Hightower agreeing to return to the Patriots after testing free agency. Hightower’s contract was less than initially expected as he received minimal interest visiting just the Jets (the entire Cupcake fiasco) and the Steelers. Neither team was interested in shelling out too much money with Hightower’s injury history.
Hightower is the prototype linebacker for the Belichick defense as he can stuff the run, blitz, and has excellent instincts and deceptive quickness in zone passing defenses in the middle of the field. His durability is his only question, but the defense is much stronger with Hightower in the middle.
New England traded away Jamie Collins to Cleveland last season and plugged the hole with a trio of linebackers. Rookie Elandon Roberts showed good speed and tackling ability in the middle of the defense, but his coverage skills were poor and he is still carving out a role. He is an intriguing prospect to develop.
Young veterans Shea McClellin (2016 free agent signing from Chicago) and Kyle Van Noy (2014 second-round draft pick by Detroit) were added last season from the NFC North. Both had an up-and-down first season in New England and a full offseason and training camp should help integrate both into the defense.
A forgotten linebacker last season was Bill Belichick favorite Jonathan Freeny. Freeny was injured and will have to earn his way back to the field. A key special teams performer, Freeny was a serviceable back-up in New England and adds valuable depth to the position. Former Maine Black Bear Trevor Bates is the longest shot to make the roster.