BOSTON (CBS) — It’s an annual tradition to say the Patriots need to address their depth at linebacker at the NFL Draft. And here we are again, saying the Patriots need to add a little more depth at the position when 255 new players are welcomed to the league in late April.
At the moment, New England’s depth at linebacker looks like this: Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Brandon King, Shilique Calhoun, and Tashawn Bower. Hightower is a great leader for what figures to be a young group at linebacker, but he just turned 30 this offseason, and his injury concerns will only grow as he gets older.
Yep, it’s time for another injection of youth at the position. Of all of New England’s needs heading into the 2020 season, linebacker is at the top of the list with tight end.
If there’s anything Bill Belichick likes out of his linebackers, it’s versatility. Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins were two key parts to the front and middle of the New England defense last year, and now Belichick has to replace both of them. So he’ll be looking for linebackers who can stuff the run, help with covering tight ends, and do their part in getting after the quarterback.
There are a handful of young gentlemen who fit that bill heading into the 2020 draft, and others who will fill certain aspects of New England’s wish list.
Patrick Queen, LSU
Weight: 229 lbs
2019 Stats: 85 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 3 sacks
Queen is the real deal at linebacker, and he should be around when the Patriots make their first pick. If he’s there at No. 23, he’d be a great building block for the future. He’s one of the youngest players in the draft, and won’t be able to legally enjoy an adult beverage until the preseason (assuming there is a preseason).
Despite that young age, Queen can quickly read plays and break them down like a savvy veteran. He’s an excellent open-field tackler and has great speed to chase down anyone with the football.
Queen was only a starter at the LSU linebacker factory for one year, but he enjoyed a breakout junior season for the Tigers in 2019. And he played his best football when it mattered the most, registering six tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks over LSU’s final four games of the season, en route to a national title.
This kid would be a great running mate for Hightower and 2020, and potential leader at linebacker when that need arises in New England.
Zack Baun, Wisconsin
Weight: 238 lbs
2019 Stats: 75 total tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks
A former high school quarterback, Baun bulked up by nearly 35 lbs when he got to Wisconsin to complete his transformation to a linebacker. He’s become a strong tackler who is explosive off the edge, and has a knack for getting to the quarterback. He’s athletic and possess a strong football IQ, which helped him become one of the best linebackers in the nation in 2019, earning first-team All-America and first-team All-Big Ten honors.
One of the knocks on Baun is that he has small arms, but that didn’t seem to be too big of an issue as he racked up 152 tackles in 39 games (27 starts) for the Badgers.
Baun is solid at dropping back into coverage and can go sideline-to-sideline with relative ease, so he said at the Senior Bowl that he expects to switch to a more off-ball role in the NFL. He’s slotted to be drafted sometime late in the first round, and would be a solid pickup for the Patriots if they choose to go defense with their first selection.
Troy Dye, Oregon
Weight: 231 lbs
2019 Stats: 84 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks
Dye isn’t the biggest linebacker available, but he doesn’t let that stop him from racking up tackles. He led all Oregon defenders in tackles in all four of his years as a Duck, finishing his career with 398. His 84 tackles as a senior were a career-low, but that came as Dye played through a broken thumb and torn meniscus. Despite those injuries, he still helped the Ducks win a Pac-12 title and a victory in the Rose Bowl.
Playing through injuries will definitely appeal to the decision-makers in Foxboro.
While his size may work against him — an inside linebacker in an outside linebacker’s body — Dye’s football IQ will certainly help. He plays well in coverage so he could become a three-down backer for the Pats, and if you mix in his ability to play on special teams, he could see a lot of the field at a very early point in his career.
Dye is projected to be a Day 2 selection at the draft.
Logan Wilson, Wyoming
Weight: 241 lbs
2019 Stats: 105 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions
Wilson produced in all four of his seasons at Wyoming, three of which were spent as a team captain. He’s a physical tackler with a great understanding of the game. He has the size and leadership skills to become a solid depth piece in the NFL.
Wilson started every game he played for the Cowboys, racking up 409 total tackles, seven sacks, 10 interceptions, five forced fumbles and a pair of touchdowns. He was a finalist for the Butkus award last year, given to the top linebacker in the country.
Wilson is expected to be taken sometime in the third round. New England currently owns a trio of third-round selections.
Jordan Mack, Virginia
Weight: 241 lbs
2019 Stats: 69 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks
A four-year starter at Virginia, Mack is seen as a great “team defender” rather than a playmaker. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be a solid selection during the later rounds of the draft. He tallied 289 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, and six forced fumbles during his time with the Cavaliers, and was a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy last year — better known as the “Academic Heisman.”
Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech
Weight: 240 lbs
2019 Stats: 108 total tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 3 sacks
Brooks doesn’t just run around the field — he flies around it. And while he flies, he hits everything in his sight. Run-stopping is his specialty, racking up 360 tackles in his four seasons for the Red Raiders.
When Brooks tackles someone, they have very little chance at breaking free. He led Texas Tech in tackles in three of his four seasons. In one game against Oklahoma State last season, he recorded 19 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three sacks, and a forced fumble for good measure. That was one game.
While Brooks would be a great early down linebacker for any team, there are some serious questions about his ability to cover. That will be a problem in the NFL.
But if New England wants a run-stuffing linebacker who hits the crud out of people and can also make an impact on special teams, Brooks fits that bill. He’s expected to get drafted sometime in the third round, though he could fall to a Day 3 selection.