Next Man Up: Patriots In Search of Starters at Linebacker

New England is looking for the next, next, next, next, next, next, next, next man up.

Eight Patriots players opted out of the 2020 season, deciding to put their family’s wellbeing first. The eight opt outs, including starters Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Marcus Cannon, leads the league.

Of the positions affected by the off-season, linebacker took the biggest hit. Already without Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts due to free agency, Hightower’s decision to protect his newborn son and wife means New England will have a new starting LB unit for 2020.

Not that anyone is feeling sorry for them, and the Patriots know that. This version of training camp will be very crucial for the ‘backers.

The solution won’t be simple. New England might not have the luxury of just finding three or four guys and riding them for the season. It might be a case of finding the right situational combinations and using the players to their strengths.

For example, last year Roberts had a role as a run defender, but he was on the sidelines on passing downs. This might be how the coaching staff has to utilize the linebackers currently on the roster. It’s going to be a lot of trial and error during camp.

The unofficial depth chart from Patriots.com has Chase Winovich and free agent addition Brandon Copeland at OLB with Ja’Whaun Bentley at one of the ILB positions. Having two players with experience with the team will be particularly valuable to the unit. Besides less coaching, they can share their knowledge of the system with their new teammates, accelerating their learning.

Six-year veteran Copeland should have an easier time digesting the playbook.

The void next to Bentley might be shared, based on the game plan. Against a team that likes to run (San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks), the downhill De’Jon “Scoota” Harris could get the start. If the opponent prefers to spread out the formation (Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams), maybe Cassh Maluia could get the call.

And when they have to slow down teams with an athletic quarterback (Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills), New England might slide a safety instead of a traditional linebacker onto the field.

LB Brandon King might had been first in this situation, but the 6-2 220-pounder is currently on the PUP list.

Head coach Bill Belichick, always learning and adapting, knows he needs more speed on the field to contain the likes of the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Bills’ Josh Allen.

Without King, New England’s top draft pick, Kyle Dugger, could get first dibs. Dugger might be a little raw after going from Division II Lenior-Rhyne to the NFL, but there’s no mistaking his physical abilities.

As mentioned earlier, there might not be a set in stone linebacker starting lineup for the Patriots. Like the game plans are designed specifically for the opponent week-to-week, the combination of starters could be adaptable.

Versatility is prized by Belichick, and it will be very valuable in 2020 as he looks for the next, next, next, next linebackers.

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