The New England Patriots’ free agent spending spree was unprecedented compared to their typical conservative approach, but it was thoroughly necessarily given the state of the roster and where they finished in the standings last season.
When you couple that splurge with the returns of several key 2020 opt outs, the Patriots have upgraded on both the offensive and defensive line, in the secondary (albeit in modest fashion), as well as at the wide receiver and tight end positions, which were huge areas of need.
As encouraging as that sounds on the surface, however, we can’t help but scratch our heads at why the linebacker position isn’t getting discussed enough as a glaring weakness.
While the return of veteran starter Dont’a Hightower will go a long way towards anchoring the middle of the defense, which was consistently pillaged last campaign, the Patriots don’t have much to offer behind him and their defense could suffer the consequences.
Why is nobody talking about the Patriots’ need for another linebacker?
It’s duly noted that bringing back Kyle Van Noy via free agency will help matters, but he was largely deployed as an edge rusher (he tallied 6.5 sacks and 15 QB hits with the Pats two years ago) as opposed to a legitimate inside linebacker during his first go around in New England.
The former second-round pick filled in at the middle LB spot in 2017 when Hightower was sidelined due to injury, and he wasn’t nearly as effective, though his surface stats suggested otherwise. For context, he logged a middling 57.2 grade from Pro Football Focus that year.
Behind Hightower and Van Noy, the Patriots have Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche, Terez Hall, Anfernee Jennings, Chase Winovich and free agent addition Raekwon McMillan. We obviously mean no disrespect, but none of those players will inspire much confidence in fans.
Why else do you think the Patriots are being linked with Micah Parsons in the 2021 Draft if they’re unable to nab a quarterback? The Penn State linebacker is no doubt better served on the interior, but he has the requisite tools to line up anywhere on the defense, which cannot be said for New England’s other options at the position.
This isn’t to say that we don’t think Hightower will have a huge impact on the defense. In 2019 (the last time he suited up), it looked as though he had plenty of quality football left. However, it would be foolish for the Patriots to rely on him to do everything in the middle of the defense given he spent a full year out of the league and is entering his age-31 season.
Who knows? Perhaps the two-time Pro Bowler’s sheer presence will help elevate the play of the entire defense, but it still remains to be seen if the other younger linebackers are ready to become full-time contributors on a playoff-ready roster.
Because of that, the linebacker position should be getting much more attention as a glaring need for the Patriots than it has been thus far this offseason.