While much of the attention during the Patriots' offseason, for good reason, has been focused on the quarterback position after Tom Brady, the hardest-hit position was actually linebacker.
Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts — three mainstays at stand-up linebacker for the Patriots in recent years — are playing elsewhere. Van Noy ended up making his biggest impact on the edge in 2019, but when injuries hit in 2018, Van Noy was the first one tabbed to play off the ball and he did very well. There really wasn't a position he couldn't play, so he very much should be included in that group.
The Patriots' depth chart of experienced at off-the-ball linebacker after that exodus? You could host them in a phone booth:
That's really it. Beyond that, the Patriots have some special teams-focused linebackers — Brandon King (a former safety coming off injury), Terez Hall and sixth-round pick Cassh Maluia — and there's high hopes Scoota Harris, a priority undrafted free agent, can provide immediate depth.
But Hightower and Bentley are being counted on heavily.
Hightower needs no introduction. When healthy, he's spectacular and can fill any role needed against that week's opponent — middle linebacker, weakside, strong side and pass rusher. He was noticeably trimmed down last year in camp, and the difference was huge.
A year after basically hobbling around the field with injuries and struggling in pass coverage, Hightower looked strong for most of the 2019 campaign and was voted to the Pro Bowl. We gave Hightower a B for being a good NFL starter (top 10 to 15 at his position) and a minus because he's trending downward slightly — he was one of those on defense who was not as impactful late as earlier in the season and because of his age/mileage:
Dont’a Hightower (71.3%): Enjoyed one of his healthiest seasons to date as he started to take his off-field work just as seriously as the on-field stuff. Was third on the team with 19.5 pressures and was very good against the run. Was voted to the Pro Bowl as he regained the playmaking he showed from 2014-16. But he’s going to be 30 soon and you wonder how much more mileage he has left with high-level play. Grade: B-minus.
Hightower will be strong this season in whatever role the Patriots need him in, especially in a contract season with his last chance at a big contract coming this offseason.
But what about Bentley? Bill Belichick loves to build his defense from the inside out, so the third-year linebacker seems set to have a major role this season.
Is he ready?