With the 2018 NFL draft on tap this week, PFW will offer a capsule look at each position in the coming days. Today we look at linebackers.
Patriots need: The Patriots front seven clearly had its struggles last season, with a lack of depth at both defensive end and linebacker adversely impacting the unit. Though Dont'a Hightower's return from injured reserve will boost the talent at linebacker, there remains a need to add off-the-ball playmakers with three-down capabilities to a depth chart that also includes veteran Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. Adding at least one young, athletic linebacker on draft weekend would seem rather likely, if not necessary.
High-end options: Georgia's Roquan Smith is not only the top inside linebacker in the draft, but probably the best overall linebacker. He's an elite playmaker who looks like a future Pro Bowl talent and centerpiece of an NFL defense. But, he'll probably not be in range for New England without a big trade, which likely wouldn't happen with an eye on a linebacker. Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds is a 19-year-old do-it-all outside linebacker with massive upside. Maybe the most intriguing first-round linebacker for the Patriots would be Boston College pass rusher Harold Landry. He had an injury-slowed senior season but is a year removed from being arguably the best pass rusher in college football. His stock has been on the rise, but he would be an interesting option at No. 23. But he's not the only outside linebacker as a possible option late in the first round or into the second. Others would be Boise State's versatile Leighton Vander Esch, Alabama's Rashaan Evans and Georgia's Lorenzo Carter. Though all are different, each has skills that might make them solid fits for the Patriots needs.
Mid-round value: The inside linebacker group isn't nearly as deep as the outside, so finding options later in the draft won't be as easy. Only Iowa tackle machine and three-time captain Josey Jewell or UCLA's Kenny Young appear to bring much intrigue. On the outside, though, there are plenty of guys to choose from straight through the latter rounds. Florida State's Josh Sweat is a confident, athletic edge guy with versatility and upside. Tulane's Ade Aruna and Rutgers' Kemoko Turay are guys who played more defensive end in college who might see more time on two feet at the next level. One of the more interesting overall prospects in the draft is Central Florida's Shaquem Griffin. Despite losing his left hand at an early age, Griffin has elite athleticism, speed and playmaking ability to go along with a positive attitude that would make him an asset to any team he's on even if he's not an every-down starter in the NFL.
Prediction: Versatile players for the edge of the defense have been a staple of Bill Belichick's time in New England. It's also a clear need for the Patriots after rotating bodies through the job last fall. The guess here is that New England nabs one of the trio of Vander Esch, Evans or Carter at the end of the first round.