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Patriots Draft Preview: Linebackers

Super Bowl LI: New England Patriots Vs. Atlanta Falcons At NRG Stadium

Current Roster: Don’ta Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Harvey Langi, the titular character of the Charles Dickens classic, Nicholas Grigsby

Positional Overview: A few years ago, the traditional, off-the-ball, war daddy linebacker was put on the Endangered Species List. The giants of the game generations grew up with from Butkus to Lambert, Singletary to Lewis were being made extinct by a new, invasive species: The third wide receiver.

But their kind is not wiped out yet. As long as pro football is going to keep introducing Ezekiel Elliots and Saquon Barkelys into the ecosystem, there’s going to be a need for Bobby Wagners, Levonte Davids or Luke Kuechleys to thin the herds and keep them from devouring everything.

For the Patriots, linebacker is always a need. And it’s among their hardest positions to gauge. Hightower looked lost his first season in the system, figured it out and then thrived all the way to a second contract. A freak athlete like Jamie Collins didn’t. Then a JAG like Kyle Van Noy gets plugged in and becomes a productive, damned near indispensable component. But we saw how they looked last year after Hightower went down. And the need to get younger, stronger and more athletic both inside on the second level and outside on the line of scrimmage is mission critical. Fortunately, among all their areas of need we’ve looked at so far, this year’s class provides the deepest, broadest talent pool.

The Definite First Rounders:

Roquan Smith, Georgia. 6-foot-0, 230 pounds, 4.51 40-time

Smith is almost as good a pure athlete as there is at any position in this draft, with the ideal size/speed combo. He plays inside-to-out. As his speed would indicate he can go sideline-to-sideline. He’s got a reaction that gets into his first step instantaneously. He’s not overpowering necessarily. But did win the Butkus Award and happens to be the best cover linebacker in the Class of 2018. He projects as an ideal 4-3 weakside linebacker in the pros. And his ceiling is high enough for the Pope to commission Michealangelo to paint frescos on it.
Compares to the leading brand: Dion Jones

Tremaine Edwards, Virginia Tech. 6-4, 250 lb, 4.54
Another great combination of size and speed, Edwards is a big, run-and-chase
glass eater who can run like Smith but also did 19 reps on the bench at the Indianapolis CrossFit Games. His physical tools don’t always show up on the game tape, but his final stat line of 109 tackles, 14 TFL, 5.5 sacks and 3 FF looks good on a resume. He’s got a prototype V-shaped frame and a developed technique for squaring up ball carriers and bringing them down. He needs to work on toning down the aggressiveness that makes him overpursue at times, blowing his gap discipline all to hell. But he is the flat out best blitzer in the bunch who’ll hand fight off blockers chase down QBs. He was bred in a lab to play stacked LB in the NFL and will be doing exactly that.
Compares to the leading brand: DeVondre Campbell

Three the Patriots Have Worked Out:

Rashaan Evans, Alabama. 6-2, 232 bl, 4.73

Draft Season when we’re not talking about another elite Bama first round linebacker would feel like Thanksgiving where I’m not morning drinking at a high school football game. And this year is no exception. Granted, last year’s can’t-miss Son of Saban dropped all the way to 31 overall for being a dick and now is facing felony charges of beating his girlfriend up. But there’s no reason to hold Reuben Foster’s dickholery against Rashaan Evans. A devastating tackler with a hit/wrap/drive technique like something out of the videos they show you at Youth Football Camp, this converted high school DE can also rush from inside or out, standing or down in a stance. His speed isn’t up there with the other two first rounders, but it’s adequate for staying with backs and tight ends in coverage. And his tape is better than his measurables. Belichick worked him out personally at the Tide’s Pro Day.
Compares to the leading brand: Demario Davis

Jack Cichy, Wisconsin. 6-1, 234 lb, 4.73
The former walk on had a breakout game against USC in the 2015 Holiday Bowl. But just as he was starting to emerge as a legit early round pro prospect, he missed the second half of 2016 and all of last year with, respectively, a torn pectoral and a preseason torn ACL. When healthy, he’s more of an instinctive, run stopper type, relying on his instincts and toughness than any sort of read-and-react athleticism. Nick Caserio worked him out and, given the Patriots faith in modern medicine’s advancements in knee surgery, he could be a Saturday pick.
Compares to the leading brand: Paul Posluszny

Skai Moore, South Carolina. 6-1, 218 lb, 4.67
Moore has been in South Carolina almost as long as Tommy Callahan went to Marquette. One reason for his five seasons there was a medical redshirt for a herniated disc. He’s a better hitter than his size would suggest with a solid punch and was responsible for 93 tackles. But it’s his 3 INT that a Guidance Counselor would point to and say that’s his future. He looks like a Big Nickel hybrid safety/LB and core-4 special teamer. The Patriots are always in the market for both, which is why they worked with Moore both at his Pro Day and one of their Combine visits. He’s probably also a round 4 or 5 guy.
Compares to the leading brand: Jordan Hicks

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Probably Second Rounders:

Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State. 6-4, 245 lb, 4.65

Vander Esch has a Steve Rogers in Captain America I story. He showed up at Boise St. in his own words “scrawny,” but with the heart and courage to be given an experimental serum by an expatriate German scientist – Wait. Only the first part of that is true. He built up the mass to possess the ideal height and weight of a system-versatile NFL linebacker. He’s long, played well in zone but can also cover the seam and has the strength for pass rushing inside. And has the range to play to the boundary. The biggest drawback with him is inexperience. Granted he had 140 tackles last year, but that is his only season of doing much to impress pro scouts. And yet it’s hard not to hear he got his start playing 8-man football and not think about Brian Urlacher. Which is probably even a more impressive guy to be compared to than the First Avenger.
Compares to the leading brand: Carlos Dansby

Large Day 2 Prospect:

Malik Jefferson, Texas. 6-2, 240 lb, 4.66
Playing the hybrid Rover position in Tod Orlando’s game-specific shape-shifter defense earned Jefferson Big 12 DPOTY honors. He’s a 4-down player who’ll attack the ball carrier on defense or special teams like a Maori warrior. He’s an NFL-caliber athlete already who needs to tone down his over-pursuing and learn to mind his gap. But prior to his move to Rover he played Mike so he’s got experience in different looks.
Compares to the leading brand: Danny Trevathan

Small Day 2 Prospects:

Jerome Baker, Ohio State. 6-1, 225 lb, 4.53
Baker is undersized but overly strong, pulling off 22 bench reps at the Lucas Oil Company Picnic. He’s a sound tackler but his game is predicated on speed. You’ll never really find him fighting off blocks to stuff runners, which is probably why oftentimes you’ll only find him on tape if you’re really looking for him. He’s more of a see-ball/get-ball type of LB who’ll probably be a solid 3rd down specialist.
Compares to the leading brand: Wesley Woodyard

Small School Guy:

Darrius Leonard, South Carolina State. 6-2, 229 lb, 4.76
Leonard got zero FBS scholarship offers. But played well in four career games against FBS competition, including a 19 tackle game against Clemson. He could just be one of those late bloomers who evades recruiters’ radar until he develops the size and skill later on. Then again, he might have had a couple of good games and maxxed out against inferior competition. But his upside will be so worth a mid-round pick.
Compares to the leading brand: James Harrison

Captain Intangibles:

Josey Jewel, Iowa. 6-1, 236 lb, 4.78

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It doesn’t take much to see Jewel as a … bright, shiny, object the Patriots would value. For starters, he’s a Kirk Ferentz product, and his coach has raved about his “magnetic” leadership. He’s a team captain which is always a plus. His 6.80 3-cone is right in that range they love to target. And against elite competition he produced 120+ tackles each of the last three seasons as the Hawkeye’s Mike spot. He’s not huge by any means but has a frame that could hold more bulk and he already has run-stuffer upper body power.
Compares to the leading brand: Sean Lee

Admiral Intangibles:

Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida. 6-1, 229 lb, 4.38

By now there should be no American who isn’t aware that Griffin had to have his hand amputated due to a birth defect, played DI football and now has the potential to be drafted by an NFL team. It’s the stuff of 30 for 30s, kids books and eventually major Disney films. A lot of doubt was alleviated by his solid showing against the best of the best in Mobile, where he showed he can drop into coverage, rush, play in sub-packages and special teams. His straight line speed can cause a rip in space/time, but there’s no finesse in his game. He plays with power. And obviously his inspiration to his teammates is off the charts.
Compares to the leading brand: Nobody. There’s only Griffin.

Who the Patriots Will Draft:
Josey Jewel.
This guy just checks so many boxes for them. I can definitely see him being worked in gradually, playing alongside Hightower in base defense and freeing him up to play effectively as the Will/disruptor role up on the line on passing downs. Josey Jewel to New England. You heard it here first.

Earlier previews:

Quarterbacks

Offensive tackle

Tight ends

Edge

@jerrythornton1