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2017 Patriots Training Camp Positional Preview: Hightower's return keys linebacking corps

This article originally appeared in the July 18 issue of Patriots Footall Weekly. To subscribe, click here.

Generally, the theory goes that when Pro Bowl-caliber players coming off big Super Bowl performances reach the open market of free agency they are as good as gone.

Thankfully for the New England defense that theory didn't hold true this offseason when linebacker Dont'a Hightower tested the waters of free agency - including a visit to the rival Jets - but in the end chose to return to Foxborough on a new four-year contract that could be worth up to a reported $43 million.

Hightower's value to the team he joined as a first-round pick in 2012 is unquestioned at this point. He's a captain and a leader. More importantly he's one of the most consistent and timely defensive playmakers on the New England roster, a reputation that was galvanized yet again with his key strip sack to help ignite the historic Super Bowl LI comeback to beat the Falcons in February.

But something else that's not debatable is that Hightower has consistently dealt with injuries over the years. He's missed at least three games in each of the last three seasons due to knee and shoulder issues. The health factor reportedly hindered Hightower's value on the open market, specifically in New York, and may have actually aided in his return to New England. Hightower will begin camp on the active/PUP list and can be activated at any time.

Though he struggles to stay on the field at times, Hightower has been the only true every-down linebacker in New England since the trade departure of Jamie Collins last Halloween. Part of that has to do with the team utilizing just two linebackers in many defensive sets, but another factor is defensive coordinator Matt Patricia piecing together other players around Hightower to maximize those players' various strengths.

That mixing and matching could very well continue in 2017 with returning options such as Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and Elandon Roberts as well as the addition of durable, proven former Jets tackle machine David Harris.

A year ago the free agent addition McClellin (4) and October trade arrival Van Noy (2) combined to start six games in their first season in New England. Each found ways to make timely contributions and display versatility that saw them work from the edges to the middle of the defense. Now, with a year under their belts, that versatility and experience should only help them continue to evolve as contributors, especially when it comes to Van Noy. The former Lions second-round pick could have more regular starting potential that would lead to increased production in a contract year.

Harris earned Bill Belichick's respect over the years against the Patriots as a heady, productive player who's been remarkably healthy having missed just a single game in the last eight seasons. Harris has six 100-tackle seasons on his resume and just missed out on the plateau with 95 stops in 15 games while battling a hamstring issue last fall. A decade into his NFL career the veteran swaps sides in the Border War as one of those veteran types motivated for a potential run to a Super Bowl ring, especially considering his somewhat unceremonious dumping by Gang Green.

Not only does Harris' arrival offer insurance depth behind Hightower, but it could also allow the latter to put his pass rushing and versatility to better use with the duo on the field together.

Another potential boost to the linebacking corps would be growth of the second-year former sixth-round pick Roberts. The Houston product had a deceptively productive rookie season, starting five games and tallying 44 tackles. He's more of a run-first, traditional middle linebacker but his comfort in the system could also free up Hightower for a more frequently diverse role similar to the one he had back in his college days for Nick Saban at Alabama.

Veteran Jonathan Freeny's return from IR, where he landed after actually starting each of the first four games last season, also adds depth as well as special teams value. Freeny started 11 of 18 games he played over the last two seasons but is likely more of a backup option with the deeper group he returns to this summer.

Another intriguing name in the linebacker mix is BYU undrafted rookie Harvey Langi. The Patriots guaranteed Langi a reported $115,000 in bonus/salary to sign in New England - most for any undrafted player in the NFL this spring - increasing the belief that Belichick has an affinity for the former Cougars potential at the next level. Practice squad returnee and Maine native Trevor Bates and another undrafted rookie, Brooks Ellis, round out the linebacker group.

While not a lot of the playing time and roles at linebacker are defined beyond Hightower on the depth chart, the group would seem to have a bit more to work with than the unit that finished last season. In fact if Harris continues to play at a high level the group should be much better than the Hightower-and-fingers-crossed feeling that some fans seemed to have on the road to a fifth Lombardi late last year for a defense that led the NFL in points allowed.

Key Additions:

David Harris (FA, N.Y. Jets)

Losses:

None

Key Player:

Dont'a Hightower - The defensive captain is the focal point of the defensive front both in terms of communication/leadership and playmaking ability.

Biggest Question:

Does adding veteran David Harris to the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin bring enough depth to unit?

Bottom Line:

If Hightower can remain relatively healthy the linebacker group should have enough versatile complementary pieces to carry its share of the load on what's expected to once again be a solid New England defense.

Predicted Starters:

WLB Kyle Van Noy

MLB David Harris

SLB Dont'a Hightower

Position Coach:

Patrick Graham, 8th season with Patriots / 8th NFL season

Linebackers

NO.PLAYER (YEAR)GP/GSTTUTAS/YDS.INT.PDFFFR
44Trevor Bates (1st)1/00000/00000
47Brooks Ellis (rookie)         
55Jonathan Freeny (6th)12/0151141/40000
45**David Harris (11th)****15/15****95****63****32****0.5/3****0****2****0****0^**
54**Dont'a Hightower (6th)****13/13****65****31****34****2.5/21.5****0****2****1****0**
48Harvey Langi (rookie         
58Shea McClellin (6th)14/43916231/70001
52Elandon Roberts (2nd)13/54425190/00010
53**Kyle Van Noy (4th)****14/9****52****32****20****1.0/8.0****1****3****1****0***

Stats for 2016 - bold indicates projected starter
*-with Detroit and New England; ^-with Jets

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