Making sense of the Patriots disappearing linebacking corps - bdsthanhhoavn.com

Making sense of the Patriots disappearing linebacking corps

The Patriots made 10 selections in the 2022 draft. None were linebackers, even though the position was considered a significant need from the perspective of getting faster and more explosive.

At least, that’s what Jerod Mayo described on his wish list back in February.

Had the Patriots stayed at No. 21, they could have had either Georgia’s Quay Walker, or Utah’s Devin Lloyd. Both of those inside linebackers fit the bill. They’re fast, dynamic playmakers at the second level of the defense.

Either one could have anchored the middle of the Patriots defense for many years to come.

But Bill Belichick passed, moving down the board. The Patriots also had chances later to secure linebackers in a similar mold, but focused on other positions.

The explanation provided by personnel head Matt Groh was that the Patriots were going to rely on in-house players at the position who had either yet to play (Cameron McGrone, Raekwon McMillan), or players who had yet to blossom (Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings).

Also likely factoring in is the fact that true inside linebackers have become among the most devalued NFL positions in recent years, especially when it comes to high draft picks.

“You don’t want a big guy with a neck roll who can’t run,” SiriusXM NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots said when reached during the week. “Now, it’s Fred Warner, it’s Darius Leonard, it’s Devin White. You want an athletic guy who can play in your sub-packages. All the other guys have become obsolete in today’s NFL.”

True. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need speedy off-the ball linebackers who can both rush the passer, and cover in space.

At this stage, with minicamp a month away, the Patriots have only added one linebacker to the roster. Former Cleveland Brown Mack Wilson arrived via trade. He’s both speedy and athletic. They also brought back Ja’Whaun Bentley, who’s neither, but knows the defense.

No matter which way you slice it, the list of names at inside linebacker is hardly inspiring. More to the point, it’s hard imagining the Patriots being any closer to stopping the Bills with that group.

Sure, the Pats did manage to trim the list by not bringing back older linebackers who didn’t help the speed part of the equation. They haven’t re-signed Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, while they released Kyle Van Noy, who signed with the Chargers on Thursday.

But it still seems like they’re rolling the dice with this group when they could have enhanced the position in the draft.

The method behind the madness?

During a recent episode of the “Pats from the Past” podcast, Mayo tried to provide some context.

“I think this year, thinking about the guys we have in the room, we have some guys that can rush and cover,” Mayo said. “And so, I think we have some guys that Pats nation, they haven’t even heard of probably.”

Like McGrone, a fifth-round pick from the 2021 draft. He’s closer to the prototype of today’s inside linebacker at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds. He ran a high-4.4 40-yard dash while at Michigan. Naturally, Mayo is curious to find out what that kid can do at the pro level, along with others in the cast.

New England Patriots outside linebacker Cameron McGrone steps on the field for an NFL football practice, Monday, June 14, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
New England Patriots outside linebacker Cameron McGrone steps on the field for an NFL football practice, Monday, June 14, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

“That, to me, is the exciting part — the unknown. And we’re going to go into it as a unit, we’re gonna go into it together,” he said. “And, I would say, even right now, not having some of those older guys in the room is beneficial for the younger guys because older guys would be bored out of their minds with some of the things we’re talking about.

“At the same time, it’s forcing young guys to really take that step forward, and really grow and develop without being hindered by any other guy’s experience.”

Going this route might allow the Patriots to develop into the type of defense that’s needed in today’s NFL. And that’s a unit that relies more heavily on defensive backs.

Wilcots envisions the Patriots playing with four down linemen up front, one linebacker, and six defensive backs much of the time.

Basically, it’s what their personnel dictates. It’s also what’s needed against opposing offenses that are stacked with playmakers at the skill positions.

“The game’s changed. Belichick knows that,” Wilcots said. “You have to match up to whoever they put out there on offense.”

Teams need to find a way to counter the speed of pass-catching running backs, athletic tight ends and blazing fast receivers.

Last season, the Pats typically played two inside linebackers and subbed one out during passing downs. If that continues to be their preference, Bentley will likely be one of the linebackers, especially after signing a contract that pays him an average of $3 million annually.

BETTER RETURNS: Rookie linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley celebrates last night after scoring a touchdown on a fumble return, caused by a strip sack by defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn on Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. Staff photo by Matt Stone
BETTER RETURNS: Rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley celebrates last night after scoring a touchdown on a fumble return, caused by a strip sack by defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn on Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. Staff photo by Matt Stone

His wing mate?

That will likely come down to Wilson, McGrone and McMillan.

Wilcots, a former NFL safety, is a fan of Wilson. He thinks he could have a big role, especially playing alongside all the “quasi-linebackers” the Patriots employ at safety, be it Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips or Jabrill Peppers.

And having Dugger, Phillips and Peppers, along with Devin McCourty, allows the Patriots the flexibility to not need as many off-the-ball linebackers on the field — in theory, at least.

Speaking with the media on Tuesday, Wilson was appreciative of how the Patriots have handled their linebacker room to this point.

“Obviously, the front office and coach Belichick seem very confident in the guys we have in the room now,” Wilson said. “Obviously, I feel confident, as well. We have some great guys in there. We’ve just got to continue to build this thing, continue to put everything together.”

So the hope is the Patriots will be better at defending in space given how it appears they’ll deploy their linebackers and safeties.

The problem?

While getting faster and more athletic is the right approach, it won’t do much good if the Patriots can’t stop the run up front.

The Pats were gashed up the middle, and along the edges at different points of the season. It’s so much harder to defend if you can’t make teams one dimensional, and shut down the run.

Wilcots, however, has faith Belichick will figure it out, playing with a smaller, lighter group at the second level.

FILE - Cleveland Browns linebacker Mack Wilson defends during an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cleveland. The Browns and Patriots agreed to swap linebackers with Mack Wilson going to New England and Chase Winovich headed to Cleveland, a person familiar with trade told the Associated Press on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.(AP Photo/David Richard, File)
FILE – Cleveland Browns linebacker Mack Wilson defends during an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cleveland. The Browns and Patriots agreed to swap linebackers with Mack Wilson going to New England and Chase Winovich headed to Cleveland, a person familiar with trade told the Associated Press on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.(AP Photo/David Richard, File)

“He was the first guy that won a Super Bowl letting Thurman Thomas run the ball,” said Wilcots. “What I’ll say is, the run game ain’t going to beat you, unless you allow them to run in the red zone.”

Wilcots believes if a defense can keep the explosive plays to a minimum, and holds the other team under 30 points, that team will have a chance to win every game.

“Defenses are now built from back to front. You can’t stop ‘em all. But you’ll be able to keep the score down,” Wilcots said. “Create some turnovers, and that’s enough to win in this league. Don’t give them 30. Don’t give up explosive plays, turn them over twice, and that goes a long way toward winning.”

It remains to be seen if this group can pull it off.

King of the hill

Spoke with Eric Galko, the director of football operations and player personnel for the East-West Shrine Bowl.

Several Patriots draft picks (Tyquan Thornton, Pierre Strong, Jack Jones, Sam Roberts), as well as a few of their undrafted signees (D’Eriq King, LaBryan Ray), attended.

Given the Patriots success with undrafted players (Malcolm Butler, J.C. Jackson, David Andrews, Jakobi Meyers), King, who played quarterback at Miami, is an intriguing possibility.

“I think he has the ability to be a running back, a receiver, a return specialist, and certainly a quarterback,” Galko said..

According to Pro Football Network’s Aaron Wilson, who spoke with the Miami quarterback, the Patriots told King they planned to utilize him in multiple ways, be it receiver, running back, and quarterback.

Naturally, thoughts of Julian Edelman, a converted quarterback, come to mind in terms of how King might be flipped to a wide receiver.

King actually began his college career as a receiver before transferring to Miami in 2020 and moving over to quarterback.

As a wideout, King caught 58 passes for 492 yards over his first two collegiate seasons at Houston. He passed for 2,686 yards and 26 touchdowns as the Hurricanes’ starting QB in 2020, while adding 538 rushing yards and 16 receiving yards.

“I think best case-scenario, I think he can be your third quarterback, your fourth running back, your fourth receiver, and a backup kick returner,” said Galko. “That’s four roster spots you take up in one player.”

Galko also provided perspective on some of the Patriots actual draft picks.

He described 6-5, 295 pound defensive tackle Sam Roberts, the team’s sixth-round pick, as a “very wide human being.”

That wide human being had five field goal blocks at Northwest Missouri State.

“I think it’s because he wins off the snap, and plays wide with great length, and he’s got a great football IQ,” said Galko.  “I think he’ll help on special teams as a rookie, but his ability as a 3-tech, 5-tech run defender will be impactful for him in his NFL career.”

Jimmy G Chronicles

Jimmy Garoppolo remains in limbo. He has one foot out the door with the Niners, but also still has one foot in.

Niners GM John Lynch says he’s still getting calls on Jimmy G. But the right situation hasn’t materialized, especially with the quarterback in the process of rehabbing after shoulder surgery.

San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo celebrates after an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, in Green Bay, Wis. The 49ers won 13-10 to advance to the NFC Chasmpionship game. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)
San Francisco 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo celebrates after an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, in Green Bay, Wis. The 49ers won 13-10 to advance to the NFC Chasmpionship game. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)

The Niners will likely do something before Week 1, when his $24 million salary becomes guaranteed. One possibility raised was having him restructure his deal, and then battling with Trey Lance for the starting job.

“We either want Jimmy playing for us, which we’re alright with, or we want him to get the value,” Lynch said, via the San Jose Mercury News. “As for inflection points, once he starts throwing, people will feel more comfortable. Now that we’ve had the draft, teams reevaluate rosters, and throughout the offseason and training camp, injuries can happen.”

Lynch said they’d “find the right situation for everyone” and that it wouldn’t be the worst situation for the 49ers or Garoppolo if he returns.

Scar remembers Weishuhn

Legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia paid tribute to former Patriots linebacker Clayton Weishuhn, who died April 22 in a motor vehicle accident.

Weishuhn, who was 62, played for the Patriots from 1982-1986.

Scarnecchia recalled Weishuhn, a third-round pick, being part of Ron Meyer’s first draft class, and added to a linebacking corps that featured Steve Nelson on the inside, with Andre Tippett and Donnie Blackmon out on the flanks.

“He was everything we thought he was going to be,” Scarnecchia said of Weishuhn. “He could run fast, he was instinctive, tackled everybody. He still holds the (franchise) record for total tackles in a season (229 in 1983).

“This guy was really special. His career was shortened due to injury, but when you were on the field with this guy, you just knew his presence, and his ability to run and make plays. And he was just such a wonderful kid.”

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