FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Last season, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts were three of the Patriots' top-performing linebackers. During the offseason, however, all three left the club via free agency, and a fourth, Dont'a Hightower, recently elected to opt out of the 2020 season for COVID-19 reasons.
That's a considerable amount of experience and playmaking ability for New England's coaching staff to replace. Inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo returns for his second season in that role and is joined by new outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick, who spent the previous four seasons as New England's safeties coach. Belichick assumes the position previously held by DeMarcus Covington, who now coaches the Patriots' defensive line.
Between Mayo and Belichick, they have a number of new faces with whom to work, many of them younger and less experienced than those who departed, but also potentially versatile players who might work at both inside and outside positions. The coaches also have the benefit of returning veterans like Ja'Whaun Bentley on the inside and outside 'backer John Simon to help ease the transition.
"It's been going great working with John, and with all those guys," Belichick remarked during a video conference with reporters on Aug 21. "John's definitely somebody that I can lean on and get advice from him. He's played a lot of football here and in the league. We all try and help each other out, learn from each other's mistakes – good plays and bad plays – but all those guys are helping. They're all doing a great job and I'm enjoying working with them. A lot of blue-collar guys, hard-working guys. It's been great seeing the game from a little bit different perspective."
Second-year man Chase Winovich and returning veteran Shilique Calhoun are seeing considerable snaps at OLB, as is 2020 free agent addition Brandon Copeland. The well-traveled, versatile Copeland said during a video conference this week that, after several practices, he's finally getting a feel for where he might fit in New England's defense.
"I do have a better sense of that, but it falls into that category of 'all roles possible.' We understand that this is a very flexible defense. So… whatever Coach asks me to do, I'm more than willing to do it. That's what's kept me around the league this long. Here, I'm fortunate to be around a lot of players, coaches who can help me excel in many different ways and positions.
"With everything going on [in terms of the pandemic]," Copeland added, "we haven't had a chance to get to know each other as people, like we would have if we had the springtime together. I've been very excited about the amazing conversations we're now having about football that are helping me grow as a player."
Bentley, meanwhile, has embraced the responsibility once assumed by Hightower of de facto on-field director, calling out defensive signals relayed by his coaches.
"Being a linebacker in general involves a lot of communication," Bentley explained in a recent video conference with the media. "And us as a defense, we communicate a whole lot. So, it's a piece of the puzzle – a piece that's very valuable to our defense. Being a linebacker, that comes with the territory.
"Everybody [in the linebacker rooms] is getting to know each other a little bit. We're working day in and day out to get better. Everybody's smart, everybody brings different qualities to the table. Now, we're just piecing it all together and we're excited to continue to work and stack these days together. Personally, you just look to perfect your craft and add your piece to the bigger puzzle."
Rookie Josh Uche is among the newcomers who's been active and exhibiting position flexibility throughout the opening week of training camp practices.
"Josh – like all the rookies – has come in and done a great job in the classroom and on the field," Mayo observed. "We still have a long way to go, but his attitude and just overall presence is impressive and hopefully we can continue this throughout the season. We'll see where it goes. He's a very versatile guy. We'll see what happens."
Another 2020 draft choice, Anfernee Jennings, has been more visible on the field the past few days, while 2019 practice squad holdover Terez Hall seems more confident in his position after a year in Foxborough. Rookies Scoota Harris and 2020 draft pick Cassh Maluia are getting their share of reps as well.
"First and foremost, you have to start with his overall athleticism," Mayo declared about Maluia. "He can run, he's fast – we just have to focus on the classroom with Cassh. Hopefully he can contribute, not only on defense, but also in the kicking game. We'll see. It's tough coming in here as a rookie and really being able to display your athleticism when you're thinking so much [about learning the system]. But hopefully Cassh continues trending in the right direction."