After the departures of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts from last year’s team, the Patriots find themselves thin at the linebacker position. As it stands, Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley project to fill two starting linebacker positions, but the team could still use more depth there in 2020.
Luckily for New England, this year’s linebacker draft class is quite talented, and there are many options for the team to choose from. Here are some of the best draft fits for the Patriots at linebacker.
Patrick Queen, LSU
Height/weight: 6-feet-1-inch, 227 pounds
At the top of this year’s linebacker class are LSU’s Patrick Queen and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray. Both are on the smaller side for the linebacker position, but both have eye-popping athleticism and range that makes them ideal fits at the position in today’s NFL.
#LSU LB Patrick Queen’s film is so much fun to watch. He’s special with being able to diagnose plays by following pulling blockers, which take him to ball locations.
This is a 1st-round LB. pic.twitter.com/SH8lcqdtGa
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) February 4, 2020
What separates the two is how they process the game mentally. Queen has much better football instincts than Murray and understands how to diagnose plays faster. He also has better short area quickness than Murray, and his closing speed is just as impressive.
With his foot speed and athleticism, Queen shows promise in his ability to play man coverage at the next level, and while undersized, shows versatility and a high football IQ that separates him from the rest of the field in the draft. He is a better plug-and-play prospect than Murray is.
Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma
Height/weight: 6-feet-2-inches, 234 pounds
What Murray lacks in his ability to read and react to plays, he makes up for in explosive athleticism and off-the-charts measurables. While Queen has a better chance at succeeding right away in the NFL, Murray has the higher ceiling, due to his superior length and stronger frame.
Murray turned heads at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, recording a 4.52-second 40-yard dash, a 38-inch vertical, and a 10-foot-9 broad jump. That athletic ability stands out on tape too, where his closing speed and physicality allow him to play fast and downhill, especially against the run. His range and speed is a notch above Queen’s. He flies around the field.
2020 #ɴꜰʟᴅʀᴀꜰᴛ ᴘʀᴏꜱᴘᴇᴄᴛꜱ
LB Kenneth Murray (@KennethMurray) @OU_Football
Heat seeking missile Plays fast & aggressive. See ball, hit ball player who makes tons of plays. If he has chance to make the play, he will! #BrawlNetwork pic.twitter.com/f3OWAJKgg9
— Bridge (@BridgesFootball) April 14, 2020
What Murray needs to improve on is his decision-making. Despite being a three-year starter at OU, Murray still has a tendency to over-pursue on a lot of plays, and sometimes his best asset — his speed — can come back to bite him, as he can run himself out of plays at times. His lack of play recognition can make Murray look out of sorts at times on the field . He will need to play with greater discipline at the next level.
Zack Baun, Wisconsin
Height/weight: 6-feet-3-inches, 240 pounds
Baun has “New England Patriot” written all over him.
Having played primarily on the edge at Wisconsin, Baun is still more than capable of playing off-the-line in a 4-3 scheme too. Despite rushing the passer most of the time during his career at Wisconsin, Baun also dropped into coverage on pass plays 195 times over the last two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2018, he had a pass coverage grade of 81.3, and in 2019, a grade of 86.9.
Watch how Zack Baun impacts each play here:
1st: sets the edge well
2nd: makes the play on the screen as an off ball LB, good tackle, wraps up
3rd: inside move, gets the sack
4th: second away from a QB hit
5th: takes on a double team and is still able to get in the backfield pic.twitter.com/XG8Ve1cysN
— Justin Penik (@JustinPenik) April 8, 2020
After weighing in at 240 pounds at the Senior Bowl, Baun said that he wants to make the switch to playing off-the-line in the NFL.
His role flexibility makes him stand out in this year’s linebacker class. With a super high motor and a high football IQ, Baun is a coach’s dream, and would help replace the losses of Van Noy and Collins. He has the coverage ability to stay with running backs and tight ends down the field, and his advanced ability in rushing the passer doubles his value to whatever team drafts him.
Malik Harrison, Ohio State
Height/weight: 6-feet-3-inches, 246 pounds
Harrison is more of an old-school linebacker: a physical thumper who is a great tackler and enjoys laying the wood against his opponents. Bill Belichick has an affinity for this mold of player, which makes Harrison an intriguing possibility in the second or third round of the draft.
Jordan Love picked off by Malik Harrison. pic.twitter.com/y4lwqtVkoy
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) January 23, 2020
Harrison’s read-and-react ability is advanced, and allows him to sniff out plays before they materialize. Another player with a high motor and good range, Harrison displays a knack for stacking blockers and shedding them quickly, and has solid burst to close in on ball-carriers quickly to make plays for his team.
Unlike other linebacker prospects in this draft, though, Harrison is less fluid, and his sideline-to-sideline movement isn’t as smooth. With Bentley and Hightower both lacking mobility at their positions, New England may want to stay away from adding another player with similar deficiencies.
Troy Dye, Oregon
Height/weight: 6-feet-4-inches, 225 pounds
A highly productive player at Oregon for four years, Dye has attractive leadership intangibles, evidenced by gutting out the last four games of his senior season for his team with a broken thumb and knee injury.
Dye has solid reactive athleticism and a high IQ. At 6-feet-4-inches, Dye has an NFL-ready frame, but could stand to gain another 10-15 pounds in order to improve his functional strength.
Troy Dye making big time Troy Dye plays
Gonna miss this dude pic.twitter.com/Jrjxko6c2j
— Barstool Ducks (@BarstoolDucks) January 1, 2020
Dye moves well and is quick to the ball, but needs to improve in his understanding of the game. He can be late to react to plays, and his gap discipline can be lacking due to his tendency to over-pursue, especially against the run.
His lack of functional strength shows up at the point of attack, where he struggles to shed blocks and disrupt the pocket in one-on-one situations. He especially has issues rushing inside, where he tends to get swallowed up by bigger bodies.
Logan Wilson, Wyoming
Height/weight: 6-feet-2-inches, 241 pounds
A three-year captain at Wyoming, Wilson would likely be higher up on most draft boards if he played against stronger competition in college. Wilson is a heady player who diagnoses plays quickly and uses his athleticism and strength to make plays in the passing and running games.
If you need a coverage LB in the mid-rounds of this year’s #NFLDraft then @wyo_football #30 Logan Wilson is your man. Has the speed (4.63 40) to carry guys deep but also has good instincts in coverage. Can read the QBs’ eyes and then let his athleticism & ball skills do the rest pic.twitter.com/J6h77xyFyc
— Nino Olivier (@NinoOlivier15) March 27, 2020
While he doesn’t display elite explosiveness, Wilson makes up for that with his read-and-react skills and above-average closing speed. Along with being a physical and secure tackler, the combination of a high football IQ, solid athleticism, and strong fundamentals makes him a well-rounded prospect.
Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech
Height/weight: 6-feet-1-inch, 245 pounds
While he lacks size at the position, Brooks makes up for it with a high motor and a physical brand of play. Brooks has outstanding range as a linebacker, and moves well laterally, enabling him to cover sideline-to-sideline with ease.
While Brooks is a mobile athlete who moves well at his position, he is extremely inexperienced in coverage. At Texas Tech, Brooks was rarely asked to drop back in coverage, even in short zones. While he has the tools to develop into a coverage linebacker, there will likely be growing pains for Brooks as he learns how to read passing plays and move in the open field.
Only posting this because Jordyn Brooks is so far behind and he shouldnt be. He wears number 1 in the middle here.
He’s stout at 6’0″ and 240 lbs. with nearly 33″ arms. Ran a 4.54 at the combine. Very productive. PFF gave him a 91.5 Run Defense grade. 2,300 snaps in college. pic.twitter.com/fYC4xVoHeg
— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) April 13, 2020
Because of this inexperience in coverage, Brooks is more of a developmental prospect who is likely to start out as a core special teamer, with the potential to develop into a starting linebacker as he learns the nuances of the position.
Willie Gay Jr., Mississippi State
Height/weight: 6-feet-1-inch, 243 pounds
Likely the biggest boom-or-bust linebacker prospect this year, Gay Jr. has only started six games in his college career, and has served multiple suspensions at Mississippi State. In 2019 alone, he missed eight games due to suspension. His off-the-field red flags are aplenty, but what tape he does have to show is tantalizing.
Willie Gay Jr.
— Mississippi State Football (@HailStateFB) September 22, 2019
Gay Jr. is explosive and fluid, and can make plays against the run and the pass. He has the quickness and mobility to work in tight spaces and succeed in coverage against running backs and tight ends. He’s a consistent tackler who doesn’t miss his man often, and is a dynamic blitzer who resembles a heat-seeking missile at times.
Where he will need to improve is his processing speed. Gay Jr. is susceptible to taking bad angles in pursuit, and taking false steps when trying to identify plays. He is still an inexperienced player, despite playing three seasons at Mississippi State, in large part due to the amount of time he missed due to suspension.
If he can get his head straight in the NFL, the team that drafts him will be getting an electric athlete at the position with a very high ceiling.
Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State
Height/weight: 6-feet-2-inches, 219 pounds
Davis-Gaither is a dark horse pick on Day 3. Because of his lack of size, Davis-Gaither looks like a defensive back on film, but plays with the aggression and physicality of an NFL linebacker.
With top-notch athleticism, and good length and lateral ability, Davis-Gaither projects as a nickel or dime linebacker in the NFL. With his range and quickness, he shows a lot of promise in defending against the pass, and should be able to cover running backs and smaller tight ends.
Akeem Davis-Gaither (24) is lean at just 219 lbs., but how does he deal with linemen in the run game and as a pass rusher? His quick hands and athleticism make him a hard target.
When you think of athletic linebackers, think of Akeem. pic.twitter.com/8K0BjBvDPE
— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) February 18, 2020
Strength is the biggest issue for Davis-Gaither, who struggles to stack-and-shed, and tends to try to run around blocks, rather than attack them head-on in one-on-one situations. He will need to add on 20-25 pounds to be able to hold up against bigger linemen in the NFL.
Markus Bailey, Purdue
Height/weight: 6-feet-1-inch, 240 pounds
Bailey is a hard-nosed, fearless tackler who has a lengthy injury history that makes him a risk to select in the draft.
Markus Bailey is the most underrated ILB in this year’s draft. Dude is a Top 100 talent and my ILB6.
This is the type of plays he can make. Blitzes the A gap, but is able to turn around and range over to make this play on the screen play. He’s a baller. pic.twitter.com/vCrMLaAuQb
— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) April 15, 2020
Bailey suffered two major knee injuries in college, including a torn ACL that ended his senior season in September.
Injuries aside, Bailey has exceptional character, as a three-time member of the All-Academic Big 10 team and a team captain as a senior. On top of his intangibles, Bailey plays a smart and tough brand of football that stands out on tape. He is a tenacious tackler and is relentless in pursuit.
Bailey had issues with his burst and explosiveness even before suffering his knee injuries, making this an even bigger question mark for NFL scouts and general managers to evaluate now. With his lack of mobility and explosiveness, Bailey projects to being a two-down linebacker at the NFL level. Depending on how he recovers from his torn ACL, Bailey’s physicality and high football IQ could make him a buy-low option for the Patriots late in the draft, as they look to add more depth behind Bentley and Hightower.