Will the New England Patriots look to upgrade their starting front seven?
The most apparent flaw of the New England Patriots‘ Week 1 roster was the thin group of front seven defenders. After starting linebacker Dont’a Hightower fell to the turf with a knee injury during last Thursday’s season opener, the need for depth at the position increased.
There are six linebackers on the Patriots’ 53-man roster; Hightower, David Harris, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Harvey Langi, and Marquis Flowers. Additionally, Shea McClellin was placed on injured reserve ahead of Thursday’s opener but can return later in the season.
Between those six players, only Van Noy (69) and Hightower (35) played more than 10 defensive snaps in Week 1. On occasion, strong safety Jordan Richards was also aligned as a linebacker, finishing with 42 defensive snaps.
The thing the Patriots defense lacks most is a linebacker who’s fast enough to play man-to-man coverage versus running backs and has the durability needed to defend against the run.
In Week 1, Van Noy, Richards, Harris, Roberts, and newly acquired defensive end Cassius Marsh each earned opportunities filling that role. The result was Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt posting 246 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on New England’s defense.
The Patriots will make adjustments and they’ll likely be back to their winning ways before the end of September. However, plays like Tevin Coleman’s touchdown in Super Bowl LI and Shaun Draughn’s in Week 11 won’t subside until New England finds someone who can cover running backs out of the backfield.
That someone might just be Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith.
The 144th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Smith tallied 118 combined tackles, two interceptions, and one sack in 16 starts last season. With one year left on his rookie deal, he is in prime position to be plucked from the Jaguars’ roster.
At 6-foot-3, 215-pounds, with a 4.52-second forty-yard dash time, Smith has the physical attributes of a wide receiver, playing linebacker.
Acquiring the weak side linebacker would open up a variety of options for New England to arrange their defense.
They could drop him into coverage, allowing Van Noy to fill in on the edge until Hightower’s back to full health. Ask him to play man coverage versus opposing running backs and tight ends. Or disguise him as a backside run defender, occasionally using him as blitzer.
In three seasons with Jacksonville, Smith has demonstrated an ability to chase down running backs, fill open lanes, and close on quarterbacks before they have time to throw.
With the range and coverage skills of a safety and enough speed to beat running backs to the perimeter, a linebacker like Smith is something New England’s defense hasn’t had since trading away Jamie Collins in 2016.
The Patriots had plenty of time to look at Smith during joint practices with Jacksonville this August. In the teams’ opening preseason game, he collected two tackles, one tackle for loss, and a sack.
The Jaguars would likely be reluctant to deal Smith, especially to a contender within the AFC. He’s a rising star and a crucial component to their defense, playing over 98% of Jacksonville’s defensive snaps in 2015 and 2016.
That being said, according to Spotrac, the Jaguars will have $8.6 million in cap space next season. With Collins eating over $12 million of the Cleveland Browns salary cap in 2017, Jacksonville may not be able to afford Smith.
If so, like New England with Chandler Jones and the aforementioned Collins, the Jaguars may opt to cash in on his value before he leaves in free agency.
It may cost the Patriots a second, or even first-round draft pick, but adding a player like Telvin Smith could solve New England’s front seven woes and potentially lead them back to the Super Bowl.