New England Patriots 53-man 2018 Roster Projection v1.0: Inside LB

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Dont'a Hightower
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Dont'a Hightower /

As we get closer to the start of the 2018 season, here is how the New England Patriots might look at inside linebacker next year.

Parts one through six focused on the offense for the New England Patriots looking at  the quarterback position, the running back position, the tight end and fullback position, the wide receiver position, the offensive tackle position and finishing with the guard and center position. Moving on to the defense, part seven and eight addressed the defensive line and defensive end/edge rusher positions while part nine of 12 finishes off the front seven with a look at the interior linebacker position:


Starter(s): Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy

Back-up(s): Marquis Flowers, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Harvey Langi

Roster Bubble Boy(s): Christian Sam, Elandon Roberts, Nicholas Grigsby


Inside linebacker was a position of weakness for the New England Patriots in 2017.  A Pro Bowl player in 2016, Dont’a Hightower lasted just five games before landing on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle (after missing two games with a knee injury suffered in week one). Hightower’s absence was a big part of the defense’s early struggles: he left in week one against Kansas City with New England ahead 24-21 and they had allowed 6.6 yards per play with him and then 242 yards on just 20 plays after he left the game (all statistics from unless otherwise noted).

The Patriots adapted to injuries–as they always do–and Kyle Van Noy was required to step in for Hightower and play a larger role. Van Noy was fine as a fill-in but the defense lost a lot as there was no solid back-up to Van Noy alongside him. Van Noy finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks and third on the team with 58 solo tackles.

New England ended up starting Elandon Roberts in 14 games at inside linebacker. Roberts, a 2016 sixth round draft pick, was often out of position and over-pursuing in the run game and a liability in coverage. Roberts is a smaller linebacker who loves to make a big hit and tackles well when he lines up his man. He has limitations with speed and change of direction and is not overly athletic.

A linebacker who was speedy and athletic in 2017 for New England was former Cincinnati Bengals special teams player Marquis Flowers. Flowers emerged in the sub-packages playing over a quarter of the snaps on defense (246) despite only playing 32 snaps in the first half of the season. Flowers has excellent speed and ability to change direction and stay with running backs and tight ends. He was an effective blitzer as well registering 4.5 sacks.

New Faces:

Via the 2017 NFL Draft the Patriots added a pair of inside linebackers in Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam in the fifth and sixth rounds. While many fans were clamoring for help at the position in the early rounds, New England added a pair of big-bodied thumpers who are unlikely to contribute much in 2018 and the two are competing for one spot on the roster.

Bentley is very similar to Roberts in that he has little speed and agility and can only play on running downs crashing the line of scrimmage. He was a beast at Purdue as a run-stuffer. Bentley could replace Roberts and play a “Brandon Spikes” type role with his strong tackling and ability to take on offensive linemen.

Sam is more athletic than Bentley with ability to run with tight ends and some coverage skills emerging on his college tape while at Arizona State. He has the athleticism for the NFL to be a three-down linebacker but he is a developmental project as he lacks the ability to diagnose plays and take on defenders.  His quickness helps his coverage skills but they remain raw and underdeveloped. On tape he appeared to too often use his athleticism rather than engaging blockers resulting in being out of position.

Additional Depth:

Seemingly forgotten on the linebacker depth chart is last year’s undrafted free agent Harvey Langi. Langi only played six snaps on defense last year after a strong preseason. He never got a chance to contribute as he was knocked out for the season by a drunk driver who rear-ended his car sending him and his wife to the hospital. Langi is athletic and mobile and the Patriots used him inside and outside in the preseason last year but his best fit is inside.

Finally, special teams ace Nicholas Grigsby rounds out the depth chart. Grigsby was signed from the Baltimore Ravens practice squad at the end of the season and primarily contributed on special teams in the last five games of the season. Special teams will be his way onto the squad and he will be in a pitched battle with Langi, Sam, Bentley and Roberts for what could be one spot on the roster.

Next: 3 Reasons why Gronk should not be traded

Final Word:

Heading into camp, Hightower and Van Noy are the only locks at inside linebacker. Flowers–who returned on a one-year deal–should make the roster as the third-down specialist playing in nickel and dime packages. Langi–if healthy again–still stands out as a potential contributor ahead of Sam and Bentley. Roberts is too inconsistent and will likely be beat out by one of the rookies. Right now, it seems more likely Bentley can contribute in a specific role on early downs while Sam will have to fight Grigsby for a practice squad spot.