Patriots Training Camp Preview, Part 8

Welcome to part 8 of our Patriots Training Camp Preview! If you missed parts 1, 2, 3,456 or 7 click the number to check them out!

There are really only 2 linebackers I care about watching for the Patriots these days, but that isn’t how a team is properly constructed. The guys who play linebacker in this defense are also one of the key cogs on the special teams units. These guys needs to be football smart, strong enough to take on pulling guards trying to get to the second level and fast enough to chase down running backs. Let’s see who fits that mold of the guys they have in camp.

91 Collins, Jamie 26 4 Southern Mississippi
54 Hightower, Dont’a 26 5 Alabama
55 Freeny, Jonathan 27 5 Rutgers
58 McClellin, Shea 26 5 Boise State
53 Humber, Ramon 28 8 North Dakota State
59 Johnson, Rufus 25 2 Tarleton State
52 Roberts, Elandon 22 R Houston
45 Snyder, Kevin 24 1 Rutgers
48 Grugier-Hill, Kamu 22 R Eastern Illinois

Jamie Collins is maybe the most physically gifted linebacker Belichick has ever coached. He is fast, strong, smart, can jump as evidenced in the clip before the jump. He has gotten smart each season and has relied less on his physical gifts and more on his football IQ. He does, on occasion, still rely too heavily on those physical gifts and get beat, especially on the wheel route by running backs coming out of the backfield.  

Dont’a Hightower is just a beast. Just a tick behind Collins in terms of physical gifts, but a true understanding of the role of the middle linebacker in Belichick’s defense. Both are due contracts at the end of 2016 and I think both get signed.

Freeney found a home as a depth linebacker backing up both Collins and Hightower. Both Collins and Hightower missed a few games and so Freeney found himself as a starter, and a fairly effective one. His football IQ is abundant and he has enough physical tools to handle the Pats linebacker role for multiple games as a starter if necessary. But that isn’t to say he is a suitable replacement for Collins or Hightower were either to not resign with the team.

Former first round pick Shea McClellin underwhelmed in Chicago where they expect their middle linebackers to be Brian Urlacher, Mike Singletary or Dick Butkus. He is listed as a weak side linebacker on the Pats roster currently, which makes me think he will see time in a role similar to Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich is 6’2’’ 260 pounds, where McClellin is 6’3’’ 250, so similar builds. McClellin also has the experience to play that middle backer role and that could allow for some very interesting 7 man fronts pairing big and small guys and lining them up in places that offenses aren’t used to seeing.

Here are some examples of what I could see happening.

Front 7 3

If I were on offensive line and saw one guy with a hand down and all that speed lined up I’m not sure how I would decide who was supposed to block who. The Patriots especially like to play this game on third and more than 5 yards. With the LBs all lined up about 5 yards off hte line of scrimmage, any WR who runs in front of them gets knocked to the ground, sometimes by the nose tackle dropping into a little bubble zone while the LBs to his right and left blitz the A gap.

Front 7 2

This sort of alignment really sort of divides the field in half. Giving you a 3-1 and a 2-1 look. In this alignment, the QB would have to keep a running back into block if it is a designed pass, and he may just want to audible to a run. Long, Branch/Brown and Sheard can very easily collapse the strong side of that line and Ninkovich and McClellin can play plenty of 2 on 1 games on the other side because the guard has to respect both Sheard and Collins. This sort of alignment really sort of divides the field in half. Giving you a 3-1 and a 2-1 look. I’d imagine the first time a young QB would see it they would have to call timeout.

Front 7 1

This sort of 5-2 look is similar to the last alignment we talked about, but has people in more regular locations. Long starts inside, but I imagine it is more a loop where Ninkovich drives the tackle inside and Long runs around the corner. Hightower would be in almost a pure cover role on the TE and Knighton/Brown and Sheard would slant towards Ninkovich, creating a seam for either Collins of McClellin, whichever doesn’t have to cover the RB slipping to the flat.

Ramon Humber is the sort of guy the Patriots bring in for special teams play and linebacking depth, much like Freeney. If he catches onto the system he could stick around seeing plenty of special teams play and some rotational play in the linebacking corps.

Rufus Johnson is a big body who spent last year on the injury list. Maybe the Patriots saw something in him and that’s why they kept him around, or maybe they think they can make him into something. Given the roster situation, he will have to be very, good to make the roster. Maybe a practice squad candidate.

Elandon Roberts was a 6th round pick for the Pats this past year and will most likely end up on the practice squad to start the season.

Kevin Snyder was a depth guy for the Pats in the AFC championship game last year, but never played. Just being active shows he must have picked up the system enough in a short time (he signed with the Pats in December) that they were comfortable having him in a “in case of emergency” role. Or Belichick just wanted another Rutgers guy on the roster.

I’m predicting Kamu Grugier-Hill’s time will be short with the Pats. Only 1 player from Eastern Illinois has spent a significant amount of time in the NFL and that is Tony Romo. There have been quite a few coaches to come from E.I. (Mike Shanahan, Sean Payton and Brad Childress), so maybe he has a shot at coaching.

Starters: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins
Rotation: Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin
In Case of Emergency: Ramon Humber
Practice Squad: Elandon Roberts, Rufus Johnson
Cut: Kevin Snyder, Kamu Grugier-Hill

Here is the compilation of my roster guess through today:

QB 4 RB 5 WR 6
Tom Brady Legarrette Blount Julain Edelman
Jimmy Garrapolo Donald Brown Danny Amendola
Jacoby Brissett Dion Lewis Chris Hogan
Unsigned Veteran James White Nate Washington
Brandon Bolden Malcolm Mitchell
Matthew Slater
TE 4 OL 8
Rob Gronkowski Nate Solder
Martellus Bennett Sebastian Vollmer
Clay Harbor David Andrews
A.J. Derby Shaq Mason
Bryan Stork
Adrian Waddle
Tre Jackson
Cameron Fleming
DL 8 DE 3 LB 5
Branch, Alan Ninkovich, Rob Collins, Jamie
Brown, Malcom Long, Chris Hightower, Dont’a
Knighton, Terrance Kearse, Frank Freeny, Jonathan
Sheard, Jabaal McClellin, Shea
Flowers, Trey Humber, Ramon
Valentine, Vincent
Johnson, Anthony
Kuhn, Markus
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