Can the Patriots afford to stay small at the linebacker level again in 2021?

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Phil Perry
·5 min read
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Perry: Can Patriots afford to stay small at LB again in 2021? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Going into 2021, the Patriots have to figure out exactly who they'd like to be at the second level of their defense. 

Do they want to play athletic, contact-hungry safeties as linebackers as consistently as they did in 2020? Will they re-invest in massive bodies to play in the middle? Will they allow their inside linebackers and outside linebackers to be as interchangeable as they've been at times in the past? 

The answer may be all of the above, depending on the situation.

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There's value in the ability to adapt and change on the fly. Bill Belichick has made a career out of that kind of approach. But changing on the fly was difficult for the Patriots in 2020 as they saw two of their most important second-level defenders opt out: Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung. That meant 783 snaps from 2019 played at linebacker, a number tracked by Pro Football Focus, went with them.

In their place the Patriots tried a varied approach, but none was so noticeable as Belichick's willingness to get smaller at linebacker.

Yes, in Hightower's absence, true inside linebackers like Ja'Whaun Bentley (608 snaps, 8th on the Patriots defense) and Terez Hall (259, 16th) saw serious upticks in playing time.

But consider how first-year Patriots safety Adrian Phillips and rookie safety Kyle Dugger were used. 

PFF tracked Phillips as having aligned as a linebacker -- they distinguish between strong safety and linebacker -- 451 times. That doesn't include the 163 snaps they tracked him as having played at outside linebacker.

Dugger, meanwhile, saw 250 snaps as a linebacker and 34 as an outside 'backer. Combine those numbers with Phillips' snap counts, and the Patriots played a safety as a linebacker or at the line of scrimmage a whopping 898 times.

In 2019 -- when the Patriots were flush with linebacker talent including the likes of Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy -- Chung played 411 snaps as a linebacker or on the line of scrimmage. The next most-heavily-used defensive back on the team who spent significant time in the box was Devin McCourty, with 298 snaps as a linebacker or on the line.

Those numbers from PFF can't necessarily take into account how a particular call is drawn up in Belichick's playbook -- which player is a strong safety versus a linebacker versus a slot defender -- but suffice it to say the Patriots played smaller bodies as linebackers in their nickel and dime defenses extensively in 2020.

Do they want to stick with that approach? The Patriots ranked seventh in points allowed this past season. They ranked 15th in yards allowed. Those aren't bad numbers. Particularly given the opt outs.

But a deeper dive into the statistics would tell you that they ranked 26th in DVOA defensively. They were 22nd in expected points added per play, 28th in success rate and 29th in rush EPA. 

That last number is worth noting. Whether or not Belichick uses EPA per rush, he likely sees plenty of room for improvement for his run defense. We've discussed their issues up front and on the edge, but the inside linebacker group could use some reinforcements as well. While Phillips and Dugger were two of the more promising Patriots defenders to take the field this season, one has to wonder whether Belichick would want to consistently situate those two in the middle of massive collisions repeatedly the way they were in 2020. 

Getting Hightower back would clearly make a significant difference. As would the return of Chung, who could allow the Patriots to rotate athletes through the box and help them disguise by interchanging responsibilities with Phillips, Dugger and even McCourty. 

Bentley, a captain last season, could once again find himself in a key role. So could Terez Hall, who impressed at times coming up from the practice squad to take critical reps, and second-year man Cassh Maluia.

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There are outside linebacker types who could play off the ball like Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings. Brandon King remains under contract, though he's primarily a special-teamer, and practice-squadder Michael Pinckney has signed a future contract with the team.

But is that enough? Even if Hightower and Chung were to return? 

The Patriots would be well-suited to cover tight ends and backs out of the backfield -- a requirement of any defense in this era of the NFL -- thanks to their versatile safeties. But outside of Hightower, how many of those inside 'backers should be locked into major roles for next season?

Belichick has always appreciated thumpers at the second level. Hightower was a massive linebacker prospect coming out of Alabama. So were Collins and Bentley when they were drafted. Brandon Spikes fit into that category. All of them brought with them to the pro game old-school builds.

Yes, athleticism is critical for the linebacker level of any team these days. But given how things looked at times for the Patriots last season, it would come as little surprise if Belichick decided to beef up that area of his defense this offseason. Particularly if the on-the-field future for his best and biggest linebacker remains unclear.