Sunday, March 6, 2016

Free Agency Vs. NFL Draft - Possibilities For The Patriots At Outside Linebacker

Trying to project what New England Patriots defacto General Manager Bill Belichick will do in the offseason to build his team to an elite level is an exercise in futility - and since he doesn't have a first round pick to ponder, that makes it even less likely that anyone will figure out what he's going to do.

But we can try, as his best bet for an immediate impact player may be in free agency, while his M.O. with rookies coming in through the draft process is to bring them along slowly and let them learn from the veterans.

That said, and with there being needs at weakside linebacker, running back, wide receiver and for a swing tackle on the offensive line and perhaps an outside the numbers press corner (which varies wildly depending on who you talk to) there figures to be a combination of tenured veterans and raw rookie talent finding their way to Foxborough in the next six weeks.

Today: Weakside Linebacker

In the Patriots' 4-2-5 Big Nickle scheme, the weak side linebacker is essentially the same as strong safety, so it makes sense to look for a hybrid that can handle a box role. In free agency, the fits are Los Angeles Rams hybrid Mark Barron and Tennessee's speedster Zach Brown.

Barron, a former top 10 pick in the 2012 draft by the Buccaneers as a strong safety, he was rarely the sum of his parts and fell out of favor quickly. The title "Bust" was attached to him as he was traded to the Rams for two third-day draft picks in 2014 - which turned out to be a steal for the Rams.
Zach Brown

Once in a Rams' uniform, the coaching staff changed his moniker to that of weak side linebacker, where he filled in for starter Alec Ogletree who went on the IR with a broken leg early last season and played well enough to keep the job through the season. That said, Ogletree is an upgrade at the position and the Rams weren't willing to exercise his $8.4 Million, fifth-year option, but have mentioned that they'd like to have him back at a reduced price...

At 6'1" and 245 pounds, Brown runs in the low 4.5's and is a gifted with good coverage technique in space. There are very few running backs or tight ends that can out run him, and with his size, he can engulf backs and take them right out of the passing game - and can work the gaps in the box, exploding into the ball carrier.

Brown came into the league as one of 2012's most athletic linebackers, but also with an "allergic to contact" reputation which caused him to eventually get benched. He has improved in that area and would be a decent pick up.

That is, if the team addresses the position at all because, as previously stated, the Patriots' big nickle alignment sees strong safeties Pat Chung and Jordan Richards reduce down into the box for the same purposes, so it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see Belichick surprise the world with yet another strong safety taken in the draft using second-day draft capital.

He's done so before to bring in unknown safeties Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon in previous drafts and also Richards last season - and with Wilson announcing that he is done in a Patriots' uniform and will be hitting free agency, there may be a surprise or two in the draft.

New England is limited in the draft due to the aforementioned lack of a first round pick and, in fact, the first pick they get is at number sixty near the bottom of the second round. That effectively eliminates names like Joshua Perry and Darron Lee from Ohio State, Utah State's Kyler Fackrell and USC's Su'a Cravens, leaving only middle round risks like Oklahoma's Dominique Alexander and Boise State's Kamalel Corea...

...though third-day gems may be found in Maryland's Yannick Ngakoue or Fackrell's Aggie teammate, Nick Vigil. Both are undoubtedly projects, Ngakoue because he lacks the play strength against the run and isn't effective setting the edge despite playing defensive end in college, and Vigil for essentially the same reason, though Vigil seems to be more highly rated due to the fact that he's played inside linebacker his entire college career and is more acclimated to the second level.

There is a possibility that the team could look at interior college linebackers to fill such a void, and send Hightower to the weakside that he manned at times when Jerod Mayo was healthy last season and needed to be protected by the defensive line.

In that case, someone like Missouri's Kentrell Brothers would be a second round possibility, but it is more likely that Arizona's Scooby Wright would make sense in the 3rd or 4th round.

Brothers has elite vision and is considered the best pass coverage interior linebacker in the class, but his stock varies, so there's no way to really ascertain whether he would be available at #60, but Wright is projected to be a mid round selection, as he is most closely compared to ex-Wisconsin and 49er linebacker Chis Borland, who was a little ball of hate until he retired after one pro season due to concussion concerns.

So as it stands, it appears the Patriots best option to pick up a weakside linebacker - the middle and strong side in a traditional 4-3 alignment would go to studs Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, respectively - would be to bring in a free agent. But if they want an interior linebacker, their best bet would be through the draft.

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