Patriots LB Camp Competition: Hightower leads deep, talented unit

Andy Hart
July 19, 2019 - 10:46 am
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Leading up to the opening of Patriots training camp 2019, WEEI.com will take a position-by-position look at the competition for roster spots and roles this summer in New England.

Linebacker

Overview: While Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are back to provide veteran leadership and versatile playmaking, the return of Jamie Collins from Cleveland and Ja’Whaun Bentley from injured reserve gives the Patriots maybe the deepest linebacking corps the team has had in years.

Players (season #): Dont’a Hightower (8), Kyle Van Noy (6), Ja’Whaun Bentley (2), Jamie Collins (7), Elandon Roberts (4), Christian Sam (2), Brandon King (5), Shilique Calhoun (4), Calvin Munson (2), Terez Hall (R)

Coaching: With Brian Flores moving on to Miami, New England’s linebackers will have a pair of new coaches, although both are familiar faces. Former Patriots All-Pro linebacker Jerod Mayo will jump from the media/business world to make his coaching debut working with the inside linebackers. Mayo could also be in line to replace Flores as the defensive playcaller on game days. Respected young coach DeMarcus Covington will ascend from two years as a coaching assistant to oversee the outside linebackers in 2019.

Competition: Kyle Van Noy was one of New England’s best, most versatile defenders last season and capped the year with an elite performance against Jared Goff and the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. There is no reason to believe Van Noy, who had a team-best 90 tackles to go along with 3.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, will do anything but improve as he continues to grow more comfortable in his multifaceted role in Foxborough. Dont’a Hightower seemed to almost pace himself last regular season but was back to his usual postseason self on the Super Bowl run and remains a key, valued cog in the second layer of the defense. Maybe the most intriguing member of the group is second-year interior option Ja’Whuan Bentley. A year ago the fifth-round pick started two of the first three games of his rookie season before landing on IR. In the preseason and short stint in September he showed a solid combination of stout run play and underrated athleticism, a skill set that could earn him the starting nod over Elandon Roberts, who’s been what might be best described serviceable in starting 30 of 44 games played over his first three NFL seasons. Jamie Collins returns to New England after two-plus years in Cleveland, where he notched 104 tackles and four sacks in 16 starts for the Browns last fall. He remains a versatile, athletic option in the linebacker mix, even if he’s not counted on to quite the same level he was in his first tour through Gillette as a second-round pick from 2013-16. Though Brandon King is listed as a linebacker, he’s really not much of an option on defense but has carved out a valued role as a core special teamer. Christian Sam is an athletic coverage-type linebacker and special teams candidate who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, while Shilique Calhoun is a former third-round pick in Oakland looking to revive his career this summer in New England.

Prediction: While Bill Belichick and his defensive assistants now probably have more flexibility in terms of personnel at linebacker, it’s likely that Hightower, Van Noy and Bentley win the three top jobs in the group. That would leave Collins and Roberts as extremely experienced backups and rotational options off the bench. Sam is a guy to keep an eye on with the capability to contribute in the kicking game but also serve in a backup role on defense, something that King doesn’t really offer.

Related: Patriots DL Camp Competition: Bennett an upgrade?