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Patriots 2020 NFL Draft Preview: Linebackers

Positional Overview: As the game of tackle football continues to morph into Bill Polian's 2004 Peyote-induced Sweat Lodge Fever Dream of a world without running, hitting or defense of any kind, the great American icon of the middle linebacker has made it onto the Endangered Species List. I'm talking about the instantly recognizable faces of past generations of U.S. manhood. The guys your father and his father and his father before him looked up to and aspired to be. Chuck Bednarik. Dick Butkus. Jack Lambert. Mike Singletary. Ray Lewis. Men carved from a solid block of testosterone, who stood in the middle of defensive formations and tested you courage and your survival instincts with their mere presence. 

As offenses have spread, third receivers are the norm and teams have had to put defensive back hats on wideout hats, something had to be sacrificed and it's often that big, imposing, lead blocker-exploding, run-stuffing linebacker. They've been replaced with either a third safety or more of a smaller, mobile breed of athlete who can cover space sideline-to-sideline. That's not across the board. It depends on your system. Different teams value the off-the-ball linebacker differently. 

As for the Patriots, there has been a de-emphasis in the position over the last few years. The last time they drafted any linebacker high was Jamie Collins in the second round of 2013. Since then they've taken six, none earlier than the fifth. One of them, Ju'Whaun Bentley shows real promise and saw an increased role as last year went on. Another, Elandon Roberts established himself as a productive part of the machine before cashing in elsewhere along with fellow second-level defenders Collins and Kyle Van Noy. And while Dont'a Hightower has been relatively injury free and playing at a high level the last two seasons, he turned 30 last month. Which makes finding someone who can work the middle of Bill Belichick's scheme, understand all the concepts and develop into at least a two down if not an every down linebacker is, if not THE priority of this draft, definitely A priority. 

So far though, of all the positions, linebacker seems to have the least amount of consensus. This is the ultimate "eye of the beholder" spot of the Class of 2020.

Current Roster: Hightower, Bentley, Shilique Calhoun, Terez Hall, Tayshaun Bowser

Most Likely First Rounder:

Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma. 6-foot-2, 241 pounds, 4.52 40-time

Again, there's no clear consensus on this group, but Murray is generally projected to go in the middle of the first round, possibly to Oakland at No. 19. It depends on what you're looking for. And if it happens to be the best tackler in his class and the closest to the prototype of the old school, big presence, "stacked" inside linebacker, he's your guy. He's got the explosiveness to shoot gaps and the size to blow up blocks and finish plays. Oklahoma used him to blitz both inside and outside. He had 102 tackles after almost leading the nation with 155 in 2018. And his intangibles are off the charts, as the son of a minister who helped his parents out with the three special needs kids they adopted. Whether babysitting three younger siblings helped Murray learn coverage skills is for him to say. But for a strong inside defender, he's got more than enough speed and range to drop and stay with tight ends and backs. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Rashaan Evans

A Potential First the Patriots Met with at the Combine:

Patrick Queen, LSU. 6-0, 229 lb, 4.50

If a Dr. Moreau was doing unethical medical experiments on a hidden island somewhere and wanted to develop the next stage in linebacker evolution, this would be the prototype. He would gene splice an athletic linebacker together with a physical strong safety and create ultimate LB/DB hybrid in Queen. He's got the range and agility to cover all 53 1/3 horizontal yards, both as a "spill" technique run stopper but also in pass coverage. He only allowed 24 receptions in 34 targets for just 186 yards all last season. Not to body shame him, but there are concerns about his lack of size for the position, as well as his lack of experience, as he only took 225 snaps before last year. The first you can't do anything about. The second appears to be less of a problem given the way he got better as the season progressed, with 85 tackles, 12 for loss, three sacks, an interception and three passes defensed, and nine tackles in the playoffs. In the right system, he might be able to be an every down defender, and I think the Patriots are just such as system, as he could step into that Kyle Van Noy role. But at the very least he could be a sub-package player on Day 1. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Roquan Smith

Another Hybrid LB/DB:

Isaiah Simmons, Clemson. 6-4, 238 lb, 4.39

Simmons is less a guy without a position than he is a guy with all the positions. He might be a Will, an edge rusher or a safety. Ask anyone which of them he played in Clemson's 3-1-7 scheme and the answer will be "Yes." According to Pro Football Focus, he lined up in the box on 299 snaps, in the slot on 262, at free safety on 132, and on the D-line 116 times. They also credit him with 30 pressures on only 73 rushes, just 237 passing yards surrendered in coverage and only nine missed tackles in 94 opportunities. That's to go with his 20 career pass break ups. Then again, as Ned Stark said, "Everything before the word 'but' is bullshit." And Simmons' "but" is that there's at least one anonymous executive being quoted as calling him "the most overrated player" in the draft. Which could simply be someone hoping Simmons drops into his lap. Because some scouts see him as the most gifted athlete in his class and he's considered a top half of the first round projection. Wherever he winds up I hope his team gets a lot of prime time games because this chess piece can be moved around anywhere on that 5-level board Mr. Spock used to play and create problems for an offense on any square.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Deone Bucannon

Likely Day 2 Picks:

Willie Gay, Jr, Mississippi State. 6-1, 243 lb, 4.46

There's a guy at every position in every draft who has more red flags than the first draft of my tax return (before I make up more realistic numbers). At this position in this draft, it's Gay. He might be the guy with the highest ceiling and the lowest floor in this group. He's shown all the traits. Proven he can be an asset in the cover game. But there are issues. For instance, he was only a subpackage player for most of his career. Then he started last season with a Pick-6 on the opening drive in Week 1, only to get suspended after the game under mysterious circumstances. Then he missed time with injuries. And late in the year allegedly got into a beef with QB Garrett Shrader. But like Queen, Gay (I know what you're thinking and stop it right now, it's 2020 and we've evolved) is sideline-to-sideline backer with a quick change of direction and can be a zone cover guy in the NFL, if not more. He might be a Pro Bowler or we may only hear about him on TMZ. It's anybody's guess.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Kevin Minter

Zach Baun, Wisconsin. 6-2, 238 lb, 4.65

Baun doesn't have Murray's athleticism, but he is another Lord of the Intangibles, overcoming a bunch of foot injuries and surgeries to become a Butkus Award finalist (losing to Simmons) as the Badgers team captain. His motor always goes to the red line and he's got the position versatility to rush from the outside and drop into coverage (195 times in all over his career). But he also showed up at the Senior Bowl and told everyone in Mobile he wants to play off the line in the pros. He plays with a low center of gravity and balance that makes him stronger at the point of attack than you'd think from just looking at him. He might drop due to all the foot issues, but he's got potential to be a versatile, movable, team leaderish folk hero type. Or possibly limited by his athleticism to a part time, rotational role.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Tedy Bruschi.

Troy Dye, Oregon. 6-3, 231 lb, 4.55

Dye was productive all through his four seasons at Oregon, from his breakout freshman year after being just a three-star recruit (91 tackles, 13 for loss, 6.5 sacks, one interception) to his senior year, when he played with a cast on his hand that made it look like he was training K-9 dogs. He had at least one INT in every season, and last year gave up less than 200 yards in coverage. Here's another guy with the size that's just right for the next generation of defenses, with the size and 32-inch arms to disrupt passing lanes, getting his hands up more than me at home alone singing "Party in the USA" into my hair brush. But also the agility to stay with tight ends in coverage. And he's been productive long enough in the run game to get consideration as a potential 3-down player, probably at RDE in a 4-3. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Cory Littleton

Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech. 6-0, 240 lb, 4.54

Here's the throwback, downhill thumper you can get without having to be in the top half of Round 1. Before the Rules Committee turned the NFL into eSports, a guy with his frame and strength would've been a first rounder and probably be doing ads for Chunk Soup with his mom by kickoff of his rookie year. But as it is, his services are less in demand. He's another team captain and you can see why. He's a vocal leader type who makes impact plays in the box, with 84+ tackles in each of his four years, 60 solo tackles last year to go with 20 TFLs. According to PFF he only whiffed 34 times on 390 attempts, and got 44 QB pressures in 117 opportunities. Anyone who drafts him will no doubt have to deal with his limitations in pass coverage. But as a early down and red area backer, he's ready now. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Mychal Kendricks

Small School Guy:

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State. 6-1, 224 lb, 4.58

A generation ago, we would've said that while winning the Sun Belt DPOTY, Davis-Gaither played like a man among boys. But once again, we've evolved. Even shy of 225 pounds, he was able to take on offensive tackles and demonstrate the quick-twitch ability to rack up 23 QB pressures last year alone. Still, he was used a lot more in coverage, with 316 drops as opposed to 190 rushes. Say what you will about the competition, but he was north of 100 tackles each of his last two years, thanks to a fairly well stocked tool box of hand fighting techniques and general badassery. He's another guy who is kind of a tweener between an OLB passing down specialist and an in-the-box nickle safety. But he has the chance to go as early as the third round thanks to his tape and the way he looked in Mobile against the best in the country. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Maurice Alexander

Sleeper:

Logan Wilson, Wyoming. 6-4, 241 lb, 4.63

A four year player with over 200 stops on his resume, Wilson is built to be a run force Sam linebacker. But he still managed 10 interceptions and 24 PBUs, including four and five respectively on 56 targets last year. His athleticism is somewhat limited but he's one of those guys who looks a lot more mobile and fluid in actual game film than running around cones at Lucas Oil. He makes up for a slow 40-time with good instincts and playing with an edge befitting a guy with the name of a mutant with an adamantium skeleton and retractable claws. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: KJ Wright

Funny Namer:

Michael Divinity, LSU. 6-1, 237 lb, 4.69

Here's a guy who trips the warning alarm for a lot of teams based on the fact he was suspended twice, first for two games and then for six, and was reinstated so he could play in the National Championship game. He's not the ideal combination of size and speed, but was productive when he was in there, with three sacks last year and five the year before, plus three takeaways. But if we're being honest, I just like him because he sounds like the hero of a Christian comic book. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Bibleman

The Perfect Patriot: Queen. I think there's a reason he is the only linebacker prospect they've met with, either in person or in a virtual meeting. I can definitely see where they could view him as a system fit, to fill the run-and-chase roles vacated by Van Noy and Collins, with Hightower and Bentley filling the middle. 

Whom The Pats Will Take: Queen. Though it'll require moving down or up into the second round. And if he's available in the area where they have all their picks after 87, I would be ecstatic if they get Wilson on the cheap. 

Earlier Previews:

Quarterbacks

Tight Ends

Wide Receivers

Edge

Defensive Tackles