The new NFL league year begins Wednesday, March 17, and with it, the advent of 2021's free agency marketplace. Leading up to that day, we'll examine the landscape from a Patriots perspective. Today we take a look at the linebackers.
PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS
John Simon, Shilique Calhoun, Brandon Copeland
OTHER NOTABLE FREE AGENTS
Lavonte David (TB), Shaq Barrett (TB), Haason Reddick (AZ), Yannick Ngakoue (BLT), Matt Milano (BUF), Reggie Ragland (DET), Raekwon McMillan (LV)
Reggie Ragland (DET), Jayon Brown (TEN), Vince Biegel (MIA), Jordan Jenkins (NYJ), Matt Milano (BUF)
A fluid position in the Patriots defense, the lines between outside linebacker, defensive end and edge are tough to define, though the off-the-ball linebackers are a little clearer. A big piece of the free agency outlook is if Dont'a Hightower does return after opting out of 2020, as he can singlehandedly reinforce some of the defense's biggest needs from both a run-stopping and pass-rushing role, not to mention loads of championship experience that he brings back to the locker room.
Ja'Whaun Bentley got a ton of quality experience in 2020 and will enter the final year of his rookie deal, but after him and Hightower the defense is young on the second level, with former practice squad players Terez Hall and Tashaun Bower also breaking through and seeing some game time.
John Simon played 69 percent of the snaps, the most of any non-defensive back on the defense in 2020, while Calhoun showed some early flashes in his second season as a pass rusher but battled injuries and was limited to just 10 games. Copeland was heavily in the special teams rotation before seeing his season ended by injury.
Add it all up and there's a ton of uncertainty at the linebacker position and it wouldn't be surprising to see them be aggressive at the spot in free agency.
Free agents like Lavonte David and Matt Milano are dynamic, sideline-to-sideline players, something the defense would greatly benefit from, but all will be highly coveted in free agency and come at a steep cost, assuming their teams even allow them to get away. With some cap space to fill, the Patriots could look to make a splash, unless they want to lean into the development of young players like Chase Winovich, Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche.
In that case, the second tier of linebackers could instead be more in the Patriots' crosshairs.
Jayon Brown is undersized but has the kind of coverage ability to make a difference for the Pats defense. Vince Biegel lost 2020 to injury but is the type the Patriots have been known to take a flier on. His experience with Brian Flores helps, and could help in the role Simon played last year. Ragland played for Matt Patricia in Detroit last season and the former Alabama linebacker could provide some veteran depth in an interior off-the-ball role.
The Patriots must continue to build around their recent draft picks, as a stable of versatile linebackers has always been a hallmark of Bill Belichick's best defenses. The position should be a priority this offseason.