Which free agent linebackers could fit in with Patriots?

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Phil Perry
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Perry: Exploring the Patriots' top LB options in free agency originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Patriots have already secured their biggest defensive addition with Dont'a Hightower's return to the team. But that doesn't mean they couldn't use a little help at linebacker. 

It's the reason we gave the Patriots a stout edge defender like Michigan's Kwity Paye at No. 15 overall in our latest mock draft. It's why people seem enamored by the idea of Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons ending up in New England in the top half of the first round of the draft. 

The Patriots struggled with their off-the-ball linebacker depth last season. Anfernee Jennings, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall all had issues at times. Safety Adrian Phillips was pressed into action as a linebacker for essentially the entirety of the season.

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The Patriots also struggled to hold up at the point of attack on the edge at times in 2020. Teams ran successfully at Chase Winovich, John Simon and anyone else who was on the outside.

So as we peruse the linebackers available in free agency this offseason -- both inside and outside linebackers -- we'll keep in mind what the Patriots typically like at those spots: size, toughness, intelligence and versatility. Let's get to perusing . . . 

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Jadeveon Clowney, 28

USA Today Sports

If the Patriots want a run defender on the edge, Clowney would make plenty of sense. At 6-5, 255 pounds he's never been the type of pass-rusher you'd expect in a No. 1 overall draft choice. But on first and second down he knows how to bully people. That's what the Patriots could use.

The question would be how much is he going to cost? He's long been a big-money player, and there's still an argument to be made that he's deserving of a significant payday -- just not a top-of-the-market one. Would a one-year deal that pays him $10 million or so -- giving him the chance to hit the market again in 2022 -- be enough to get him to Foxboro?

Shaq Barrett, 28

Production, production, production. He's racked up almost 200 total pressures over the last two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. At 6-2, 250 pounds he looks the part of a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Patriots, and he's as effective against the run as he is against the pass.

But will they be willing to give him what he wants in free agency? He could be looking at a deal similar to the one Trey Flowers got from the Lions a few years ago.

Trey Flowers contract

Years

5

Value

$90M

Variation

Double

Yannick Ngakoue, 26

Another ideal height-weight-speed player for an edge rusher in Bill Belichick's 3-4 style defense, Ngakoue has bounced from Jacksonville to Minnesota to Baltimore, but he's produced everywhere he's been. In five seasons, he has 45.5 sacks. He'll be pricey, potentially earning as much as Barrett since he's been a more consistent sack-producer and he's a couple years younger.

Ngakoue is another pass-rush-specialist type, though. If the Patriots are going to spend that much, odds are they're going to want a three-down player.

Carl Lawson, 26

Lawson is one of those free agents who has been so often touted as "underrated" that he may actually be verging on "overrated" at this point. But there's no quibbling with the fact that he's been very good in Cincinnati. He'd be a heavier option on the outside for the Patriots if they wanted to play him in a two-point stance and replace John Simon on the right side.

The only issue? The run game isn't his strong suit. With Chase Winovich and Josh Uche already on the roster, they could use a sturdier early-down presence. 

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Leonard Floyd, 29

Long and lean (6-4, 250), it took Floyd some time to find his groove as a pro. A top-10 pick for the Bears in 2016, he never hit double-digit sacks in a season until he found himself in LA with the Rams on a one-year deal in 2020. But he's a versatile defender who can play on early downs and drop into coverage.

The Patriots have never shied away from trying to squeeze a little more out of first-rounders who've flamed out elsewhere and Floyd could be the latest. Unless there's a team out there that gets crazy and offers him an obscene amount of money after his big sack season last year.

Aldon Smith, 32

Somewhat similar body type to Floyd at 6-4, 255 pounds. A top-10 pick (seventh in 2011), just as Floyd was. Smith is a little older . . . yet he has just about the same number of on-the-field miles on his tires.

Smith missed almost five years as he served an indefinite substance-abuse suspension. Reinstated last year, he showed up immediately. With rare power and length, he finished last season with 50 pressures, per PFF, and he played over 800 snaps. He wouldn't command the same kind of money others on this list do, but if the Patriots are looking to take a flier on a gifted athlete, they could do much worse.

Matt Judon, 29

The 6-3, 260-pounder looks like a nice fit for a Belichick-coached defense. He can be used in a variety of ways, as he was in Baltimore, whether it's as a blitzer, a pure edge rusher or a spy. He's athletic. He's experienced.

The Patriots have seen him up close a couple of times. His sack numbers (at least six in each of the last four years) might get him paid, but if he's one of the vets who feels the COVID-related squeeze and his market isn't incredibly strong, it would come as little surprise if the Patriots swooped in to offer him a contract.

Bud Dupree, 28

USA Today Sports

You know there are some pretty big names available at this position when a first-round pick from 2015 -- one who was particularly productive two seasons ago -- doesn't get mentioned until this point in the column.

Dupree has a reputation as a relentless on-the-field worker, which Belichick would appreciate. He hasn't been a very consistent pass-rusher during his time with the Steelers, but he played on all three downs in Pittsburgh, and at 6-4, 260 pounds he has plenty of size to do a little bit of everything for the Patriots.

Coming off a 2020 season wiped out due to injury, Dupree could be somewhat of a buy-low candidate for the Patriots if he's interested in a prove-it deal that would allow him to hit the market again next year when the cap has rebounded. Dupree might make more sense than a bigger, more consistently-disruptive (and therefore probably more expensive) player like Trey Hendrickson of the Saints. 

Tarrell Basham, 27

A Prototypical Patriot from a few years back, Belichick expressed all kinds of interest in Basham when he was coming out of Ohio University. New England hosted him on a visit at Gillette Stadium. Belichick worked him out privately.

At 6-4, 266 pounds he would be the kind of long and powerful edge defender who would function well in the Patriots defense on early downs. He won't light the world on fire as a pass-rusher, but that's not often what the Patriots are looking for. Plus, if he costs them in the $5 million per year range, that might make him even more attractive.

Basham's teammate with the Jets in recent seasons, former Georgia Bulldog Jordan Jenkins, is another long-armed end (6-3, 260 pounds) who would hold up against the run on the outside and not cost a boatload.

Tyus Bowser, 26

Another "prototype" for the Patriots when he was coming out of Houston in 2017, the former college basketball player is versatile enough to play off the line, rush off the edge and cover. At 6-3, 245 pounds, once a second-round pick of the Ravens could also contribute in the kicking game. He played 172 special-teams snaps for Baltimore last year as a regular on their kick-return, punt-return, punt and field-goal block units. 

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Romeo Okwara, 26

The Patriots' interest in Okwara may hinge on the review he gets from newly-reacquired Belichick assistant Matt Patricia. The 6-4, 275-pounder looks more like a 4-3 end -- the style of defense Patricia favored and coordinated in New England -- and therefore might be a bit of a 'tweener in New England.

But Okwara has long been considered a freaky athlete, and if the Patriots are looking for a little more size on the edge, perhaps he's an option. He's not thought of as an especially effective run defender, but his physical skill set and history with Patricia might make him a better fit than other mid-tier free-agent pass-rush specialists like Haason Reddick or Takk McKinley. 

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

Jayon Brown, 26

Want someone to play well in coverage as an off-the-ball linebacker? Brown can do that for you. That just hasn't been what the Patriots have been after under Bill Belichick. If the Patriots change their philosophy at the position, he could do it for them. But at 6-feet, 227 pounds, he's just not what they've invested in at that spot.

Denzel Perryman, 28

USA Today Sports

Perryman would be more Belichick's speed, it appears. He has more years under his belt, and he shouldn't cost as much as either of the names listed above. Plus, at 5-foot-11, 243 pounds he's built a little more solidly and plays with an aggressiveness in the running game that the Patriots would appreciate.

If they feel they need a more veteran version of Elandon Roberts to play on first and second down for them, Perryman could be the answer.

Raekwon McMillan, 24

We talk all the time about reclamation-project quarterbacks. What about reclamation-project linebackers? McMillan, one of the youngest free agents available, was a second-round pick in 2017, and we pegged him before the draft as a Prototypical Patriot. His size (6-2, 248) and athleticism combination -- plus good production at Ohio State -- seemed to make him one of the surest things at his position in that year's draft class.

After missing his rookie season with a torn ACL, he ended up starting 28 games the next two seasons in Miami. Still, he was traded to Vegas in a mid-round pick-swap trade last offseason. He shouldn't break the bank this year, and he should be familiar with the Patriots scheme after a year with Brian Flores. He also played under Belichick buddy Greg Schiano in Columbus. Makes sense.

Alex Anzalone, 27

Another former Prototypical Patriot, Anzalone had the size (6-3, 241) and movement skills to play a variety of roles in New England coming out of Florida. But, as was the case at Florida, he's dealt with injury as a pro. 

BJ Goodson, 28

The opposite of an eye-catching signing, Goodson could still be an effective player for the Patriots in the right role. At 6-foot-1, 241 pounds, he should be able to hold up at the second level as he did for the Browns last season, playing 937 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

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Kevin Pierre-Louis, 30

A former Boston College product, Pierre-Louis would be able to contribute to the Patriots kicking game from Day 1. Perhaps on a short-term, low-money deal, he could give them what they thought they would get from Brandon Copeland in 2020 before Copeland suffered a season-ending injury.

There's room on the Patriots roster for linebackers who play in the kicking game, and two from last year's roster (Copeland, Shilique Calhoun) are scheduled to be free agents.