The new NFL year begins Wednesday, March 16, and with it, the advent of 2022's free agent marketplace. Leading up to that first day, we'll examine the landscape from a Patriots perspective, continuing with the linebackers.
PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS
OTHER NOTABLE NFL FREE AGENTS
De'Vondre Campbell (GB), Foyesade Oluokun (ATL), Alexander Johnson (DEN), Leighton Vander Esch (DAL), Anthony Barr (MIN), Josey Jewell (DEN)
Kamu Grugier-Hill (Hou), Alex Anzalone (DET), Harold Landry (TEN), Jewell
This could be a position of significant transition this offseason as the team tries to balance their veteran free agent linebackers with their younger core of recent draft picks who haven't carved out a consistent role yet.
Hightower and Collins have been vital members of the defense for most of the last decade, while Bentley has emerged in his four seasons as a reliable, thumping inside linebacker.
With Kyle Van Noy's release, Matthew Judon is the only starter currently penciled in on the edges as there is little proven depth beyond him or on the inside. The development of the recent linebacker draft picks is coming into focus. Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins have been selected over the last three drafts but none have emerged or look ready to take over the roles that Hightower, Collins and Bentley have played.
The easy place to start is with Bentley, who is entering his prime and could provide the middle of the defense with experience and leadership within the Patriots' system. Hightower and Collins must first decide if they want to continue playing, then the Patriots must decide how big a role, if any, they should continue to play.
The team also retained Raekwon McMillan and Harvey Langi in recent months, giving them some depth along the inside, while Jahlani Tavai is another inside thumper. There's a lot of bodies already under contract but little experience, at least in the Patriots defensive system and why Bentley could be wise long-term investment.
The strength of the Patriots defense over the last 20 years has most often been their versatile linebacker corps. A core that won three Super Bowls is now inching closer to the ends of their careers and the Patriots must find that next generation of linebackers that they can win with, but with so many draft picks just sitting there, can they afford to tap more veteran free agents who will further push those picks down and off the roster? There are already 11 players in the group, but only two of whom are proven as every-down defensive players.
If Hightower, Collins and Bentley were to move on a veteran like Anthony Barr could make sense for a change of scenery, or Jewell, who is an instinctual inside linebacker coming off a knee injury that could make him more affordable.
There's been plenty of draft capital invested into the linebacker position over the last three seasons, but it's been the free agents that have done the heavy lifting. With holes to fill at positions with little depth, 2022 could be a season of opportunity at the second level of the defense.