FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts – Before Coach Bill Belichick can respond decisively to the off-season needs of the New England Patriots, he must first determine what he already has on the roster. Perhaps no position in that area is more important than linebacker.
The position has been part of the core of previous Patriots Championship teams, with Tedy Bruschi, Bryan Cox, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer and Mike Vrabel bolstering things in the early 2000s. In the more recent championship rides, Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo and Kyle van noy were the main contributors.
Just how far away today’s Patriots are from filling their linebacker room with championship-level talent requires some prediction due to how young they are.
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“If you look at the patriots of the early 2000s and the patriots of later 2000, they always had a group of ‘backers who were consistently there for a long time,’ said Ninkovich, who retired in 2017 and now works as an analyst at ESPN. “In 2020 it was just different. You didn’t have guys who had been there and played together, and that takes its toll on your production. “
Ninkovich cited his first season with the Patriots, in 2009, as an example of how things would ideally work.
“I didn’t have to be a starter because they had guys for me – Adalius Thomas, Tedy Bruschi. Jerod Mayo. Tully Banta-Cain, who was a good player. You could just watch those guys. And when I was with Tedy in it. game came, he just said, “Hey, go do this!” I was like, ‘OK, that’s easy.’
“I felt like this year with some of the younger players was, ‘Hey, you’re all we have! Get out there.’ So that can be difficult when you’re trying to learn on the fly. “
Belichick believes that will help the Patriots in 2021, as he now has a better idea of how the pieces fit. Uche (6 feet-3, 245 pounds) said he was in fact playing on a down in Michigan, which made his transition to the NFL more challenging.
“We were trying to figure out early on what his best spot would be, and it took a while for all of that to materialize,” Belichick said. “He is a good footballer and we will be able to describe his role and his situation much better next year … he has a bright future.”
Uche, recovering from a foot injury in a week 16 loss to the Bills, caught Ninkovich’s attention as a pass-rusher.
“He had pretty good backrest and hips turning; the ability to turn and get to the quarterback,” he said.
That’s also the area where Winovich made his biggest mark, recording a team-leading 5.5 sacks each of his first two pro seasons.
But while Belichick referred to Winovich as a three-down linebacker earlier this year, that didn’t always come out weekly. Winovich was active for every match in 2020, but made a total of 59% of the defensive snaps, with a former edge-setter from the exhibition squad Tashawn Bower sometimes getting the nod about him during early downs.
Ninkovich has a suggestion that could help take Winovich, 25, to the next level.
At 240ish, 245 [pounds], he would be best suited if he is about to fight against 320-pound monsters to turn 260, ”he said.
Meanwhile, Jennings could be an example of a player who was asked to do too much and too quickly. He played a season-high 53 snaps in a Week 6 loss to the 49ers, and struggled. The Patriots used him on the line of scrimmage, outside linebacker, and in an off-the-line role.
Jennings (6-3, 259) might have been a bigger lead than the traditional rookie due to his background in a similar schedule under Nick Saban in Alabama, but in a perfect Patriots world, he would have been easily included in the mix (27% playing time ). However, Hightower has withdrawn from the season, coupled with the departure of Van Noy, Collins and Elandon Roberts pushed him into a difficult place.
“D-end, linebacker, 3-4, 4-3 games – all those different positions, it takes a little time to develop,” Ninkovich said.
A major boost in 2021 would be when Hightower returns, but that’s far from a guarantee. And even when he does, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, so the development of younger lenders remains crucial.
“I’m just looking at the linebacker position … and I’m like, ‘Man, they must be really bad in that position if this is the case.’ I like the way the two protections grind in, but that’s not really the way it should be for successful defense That’s my whole thing: Can we get some guys out there with ’50’ numbers doing the job can do it? think that will be very important next year. “
Ninkovich sees promise in linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley (6-2, 255) and Terez Hall (6-2, 235).
‘I really like Bentley. He gets into scrimmage well. He will hit you, ”he said. “If he can work on some of his cover outside of the tackle box, where he is in space, that will help his game.
“[Hall] had a small thing with him when he got the chance. When you look inside someone, you want to see them make clear decisions about attacking the scrimmage. So if you know it’s a run go get it. He come in there. … the physical side of it cannot really be taught. … I liked what I saw from him. “
Like Bentley, entering his fourth NFL season, Hall will have to prove he can bend and be competitive in coverage. After signing as an undeveloped free agent from Missouri in 2019, he fell to Belichick after being promoted from the practice squad in the mid-2020 campaign.
“His improvements have been steady but significant, and I think he still has room to get better,” Belichick said of Hall. “It’s a good story about a player who puts in day after day, after two years of hard, consistent work, and it’s paid off.”
When Belichick reviewed some of his young players late last season, he made a point that seems to apply in large part to his young linebackers.
“Anytime you have more information, I think it’s an advantage in the decision-making process,” he said. “I would say sometimes with the complexity of what we do, if there are multiple positions involved, sometimes that could slow down a little bit of a younger player to understand everything. So in the future I think we will be able to get a better job identifying them and learning how they can help us the most. “
For Ninkovich, that kind of experience is invaluable for a linebacker position still in transition.
“It takes time and it also takes a little … self-confidence to realize, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good. I can do this consistently at a high level over and over again.’ That’s when you start getting something special, and start building a good defense. “
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