The New England Patriots are coming off a season in which they won the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl title in a defensive struggle against the high flying offense of the Los Angeles Rams. Coming into the Super Bowl the Rams, the Pats were averaging 33 points per game. However, a stifling effort from the defensive unit of the Patriots led to a final score of 13-3. The heart and soul of the Patriots defense centered around their linebacking corps and signal caller Dont’a Hightower. The linebackers, however, aren’t unlike other position groups on the team and have experienced some personnel changes this offseason.
Heading into the 2018 NFL draft, the linebacking position was considered one to address with Hightower coming off of many injury riddled seasons and the retirement of Rob Ninkovich. In typical Patriots fashion however the team zigged when many thought they would zag. They waited until the fifth and rounds to draft Ja’Whaun Bentley from Purdue and Christian Sam from Arizona State. Both Benley and Sam managed to find their way onto the 53 man roster their rookie campaigns which offered up some depth and stability at the position.
This offseason, the Patriots experienced no losses at the linebacking position with Hightower, Sam, Bentley all returning along with Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. Additions this offseason include the third round draft pick out of Michigan Chase Winovich, along with former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins returning to the team after being traded to the Cleveland Browns.
Additions at the position coupled with no departures lead to a lack of space on the roster in the upcoming season. This likely means that veterans as well as players who may have made the team last season may find themselves on the wrong side of the roster bubble come September. Who can be assured of their position on the roster and who still has something to prove come training camp?
Roster Locks – Hightower, Van Noy, Bentley, Collins, Winovich*
Hightower and Van Noy are secured in their roster spots following a strong 2018 season as the primary starters on the Super Bowl champions stifling defense. Bentley is coming off of an encouraging rookie season that saw him earn a starting position prior to suffering a torn bicep muscle during the third game of the season. This injury sidelined Bentley for the remainder of the season, however the promise and flash that he showed last season that earned him a starting role will earn him a spot on the 2019 roster as well.
Another player returning to the Patriots is Collins following his brief stint with the Cleveland Browns. Collins was traded by New England to Cleveland prior to the expiration of his rookie contract. The Browns resigned Collins in free agency to an enormous contract and decided to cut the linebacker after he underperformed on his price tag. The greatest success enjoyed in Collins career was in Foxboro under Belichick’s defensive system. The draft capital that the Patriots invested in Winovich ensures that he will find himself on the 53 man roster come September with the opportunity to have an immediate impact at either the outside linebacker or edge rusher position. How the Patriots decide to list Winovich on the roster may determine the number of other linebackers who find their way onto the roster.
Roster Bubble – Sam, Roberts
Sam and Roberts find themselves in a situation in which their roster spots from last season may be filled come September. Both have shown enough throughout their time in New England in order to warrant a roster spot. Depending on factors such as the official positional listing of Winovich and the health of other bodies at the position either Sam or Roberts may find themselves in the same backup role they enjoyed last season. With all of the bodies at the position, however, one or both of these players may find themselves part of the 37 bodies that fail to be rostered week one.
The Longshots – Calvin Munson, Terez Hall, Shilique Calhoun
Munson, Hall and Calhoun will all likely find themselves searching for employment come September. All three have a lot to show if they are to survive the cuts and find a spot on the reigning champions roster. The most likely path for these three would be to show the coaches their value on special teams like fellow “linebacker” Brandon King who takes snaps nearly exclusively as a special teamer.
Through free agency and the draft the Patriots have managed to take the linebacker position from arguably one of their biggest positions of need to one of the most jam-packed positions on the roster. Don’t be surprised if Bill Belichick manages to pull of a trade late in the offseason or in the preseason. In typical fashion, it might be for a linebacker on the verge of being cut in exchange for a late round draft pick; such as what he was able to do with former safety Jordan Richards.
-Adam Myers is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @AdamTMyers