It turns out that Lieutenant Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell from Superior gun is not the only one with a “need for speed”.
After looking a step too slow, and perhaps a little too long in the tooth at times in 2021, the New England Patriots are ready to go faster on defense; especially at linebacker.
In a meeting with reporters Friday, the Patriots’ new director of player personnel Matt Groh acknowledged the team’s desire to increase productivity. As New England rivals continue to stockpile quick playmakers on offense, Groh essentially confirmed the team has already begun the process to do so.
“There are many ways to do it,” Groh said of improving the team’s overall speed. “We did some of that last year and worked to do that here in free agency. There will be different players throughout the league who qualify as linebackers, whether they convert from a different position in college – from safety to linebacker, etc.
In fact, the team tipped their hand in that regard, trading for linebacker Mack Wilson and signing hybrid defensive back Jabrill Peppers.
Although Peppers projects himself as a safety, he will join a versatile core with safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips, both of whom are known to play in multiple positions within the New England defense. In Peppers’ case, he lined up at box safety, free safety, wide cornerback, slot cornerback, hybrid linebacker and even took a few shots on the defensive line at the during his five-year NFL career. Peppers also has plenty of special teams experience, having compiled 117 career returns on punt and kick return duties.
Wilson may be a bit smaller than the Patriots’ prototype linebacker, but he offers a lot of advantages. In the New England system, he will project himself as an inside linebacker, playing off the ball. Wilson has the speed and athleticism to earn a starting position.
Doin’ It Through the Draft
With the future of longtime defensive captain Dont’a Hightower still uncertain, the Pats will likely be looking for an impact player in the middle of their defense who can provide the kind of side-to-side coverage needed to neutralize the high-speed receivers, running backs and quarterbacks within their Division, as well as the Conference. In addition to free agency, the Pats also appear set to tackle the position in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft.
As the college continues to migrate to using smaller players at linebacker, the NFL is following suit.
“It’s a different game than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago, and [the physical make-up of the linebacker] has also changed,” Groh said. “There aren’t as many of these big linebackers,” Groh said. ” They do not exist. Colleges want them smaller because they need to be able to fit college play. You can’t just create these guys out of thin air. With all the positions, this is what the college game offers us. We just have to take what they are going to give us year after year.
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One of the more intriguing options available in the Patriots’ first-round pick lineup (ranked 21st overall) is University of Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean.
Standing just 5-11 tall, Dean may not exactly fit the Patriots linebacker mold. However, he has the speed from sideline to sideline and fluid movement that can make him an instant difference maker in both pass defense and pass rush. But Dean’s greatest asset is his ability to defend against the run…something the Pats have struggled with at linebacker in recent seasons. Dean plays downhill and is very quick at diagnosing racing games. He was among the leading tacklers for the national champions, as well as in the country and rarely misses tackles in the box. Dean’s drafting would be a signal that the Patriots do indeed intend to go against the script in 2022.
Next Men Up?
While looking outside the organization is a smart strategy, few franchises place more emphasis on “promoting from within” than the Patriots. After all, “next man” is practically part of the lexicon at One Patriots Place in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Luckily for the Pats, three of the Patriots’ most versatile athletes, capable of infusing the speed the team is looking for, reside on their linebacker depth chart.
Despite being one of the most touted Patriots rookies of 2020, Uche’s 2021 season hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations. His placement on injured reserve in mid-November (resulting from an ankle injury) stalled a season in which he had been used sporadically. In eight games this season, Uche has three sacks, four quarterback hits, a fumble recovery and 12 tackles. [four, for loss] as a spinning edge rusher. Still, Uche has the speed, athleticism and system savvy to be a factor in the Patriots defense as an off-the-ball rusher or linebacker. While it remains to be seen if he’ll be used as a fast passing specialist or a true linebacker on every shot, he has the skills to play down the line in the Patriots’ 5-1 looks as well as their 4-2 and 4-3 lineouts and also fall back if they execute a more traditional 3-4. Uche will need to step up his game to earn a top spot in the Pats linebacker corps in 2022.
New England plunged into Michigan’s defensive well again with the selection of McGrone in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-1, 234-pound linebacker has upside and has the potential to be a three-try player. McGrone played just 19 games with 15 starts at Michigan, a relatively small sample for scouting purposes. He finished his collegiate career with the Wolverines with 91 tackles, including 11 for loss, to go with four sacks and a forced fumble. McGrone suffered a season-ending ACL injury against Rutgers in November 2020. As a result, his draft stock dropped. However, his tenacity and impressive range were clearly worth the investment for New England. Although he didn’t play a down for the Pats in 2021, he should add both speed and athleticism to the position for 2022.
One of the Pats’ biggest defensive challenges in 2021 was the lack of speed in executing their coverage assignments. This is where McMillan could thrive on the Pats’ defense. The former Miami Dolphin signed a one-year deal with the Patriots in March 2021. As such, he was expected to compete for a deep spot in the team’s linebacking corps. McMillain was enjoying a solid performance in camp, regularly applying pressure on the quarterback and providing solid coverage in his assignments. Despite entering the 2021 season with a significantly improved depth chart at linebacker, McMillan was making a strong case for a spot on the Patriots’ regular-season roster. His ACL tear during training unfortunately ended his season before it started. However, McMillan is expected to compete for a spot on the roster in 2022.
With OTAs slated to begin in just over a month, the Patriots are hoping to begin their preparations for the 2022 season with an extra burst and a bit more speed in their stride. The only question that remains is how much longer will they continue to feel the need.