Patriots roster reset: Dont’a Hightower must truly lead new-look LB unit

Over the next few weeks, as we crawl closer to the hopeful opening of Patriots training camp later this summer, will take a position-by-position look at the New England roster following an eventful offseason of comings and goings.


Roster: Dont’a Hightower (9th year), Ja’Whaun Bentley (3rd), Brandon Copeland (6th), Shilique Calhoun (5th), Josh Uche (rookie), Anfernee Jennings (rookie), Cassh Maluia (rookie), Brandon King (6th), Terez Hall (1st), De’Jon Harris (rookie), Kyahva Tezino (rookie),

Key Additions: Josh Uche (2nd RD), Anfernee Jennings (3rd RD), Brandon Copeland (FA/Jets)

Key Losses: Kyle Van Noy (FA/Dolphins), Jamie Collins (FA/Lions), Elandon Roberts (FA/Dolphins)

Projected Starters: Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Shilique Calhoun

Biggest Question: How will the Patriots defense fill the massive void left by the free agent departure of versatile veterans Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins?

Key Stat: 2 – Number of Patriots front-seven defenders to play in at least 80-percent of the defensive snaps a year ago. That short list included Kyle Van Noy (80.7-percent, 15 starts/15 games played) and Jamie Collins (80.65-percent, 15 starts/16 games played), both of whom left New England via free agency this offseason.

Overview: The Patriots linebacker group and defense as a whole lost two of its most versatile, active and productive players this offseason with the free agent departures of Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. While Van Noy (56 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 3 PD, 3 FF, 2 FR) had been a mainstay of the front the last few years, Collins returned to New England in 2019 and was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate early in the year while leading New England in tackles (80) and sacks (7). Collins also had three interceptions, 7 PD, tied Van Noy for the team lead with 3 FF and had a fumble recovery. Between the two that leaves a massive hole in terms of versatility, leadership and production on the defensive front. Not only will it not be easily filled, there aren’t really even obvious, sure-fire options to do it. One certainty, though, is that at the age of 30 former first-round pick Dont’a Hightower continues to chug along as the leader of the linebacker unit that will undergo a youth movement this fall. Coming off a season in which he started all 15 games he played in while finishing second on the squad with 71 tackles, along with 5.5 sacks and a fumble recovery, Hightower will asked to be a playmaker on the field and a leader off it with a young group around him. Three of the key youngsters hopeful of an impact in 2020 are third-year veteran Ja’Whuan Bentley and a pair of rookies in second-round pick Josh Uche and third-round option Anfernee Jennings. Bentley is an inside linebacker type who actually started two of the first three games of his rookie season in 2018 as a fifth-round pick before landing on IR. Last fall he was a quiet contributor (playing 27-percent defensive snaps while starting two of 16 games played). Now, he may be the second most important linebacker behind Hightower. Uche and Jennings are interesting rookies in that they bring differing but potentially complementary skills sets to the front. Uche is an undersized by strong edge player who is most proven and built for the pass rush coming out of Michigan. Jennings is a long edge player out of Alabama known as much for his work against the run as the pass, although he did lead the Tide with eight sacks last fall. If one or both can play at least an impact rotational role on the edge – blending in with veterans like John Simon, Chase Winovich and others – it could be a nice step toward life after Van Noy/Collins. Brandon Copeland is a noteworthy veteran newcomer with intriguing size and athleticism for the edge. Though he’s been as much a contributor on special teams as anything else in his career, he did start 10 games for the Jets two years ago while recording five sacks. Returning veteran Shilique Calhoun is notable as a former third-round pick with impressive size and athleticism, starting one of the 15 games he played in his first season in New England a year ago. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his role and impact grow this coming fall, maybe even as a starter. The rest of the depth chart is filled out with special teams veteran Brandon King, who’s a linebacker in name only and is returning from IR, and a handful of longshots. Of that group, sixth-round pick Cassh Maulia might have the most upside as a runaround, tackle-machine type and special teams option.

Power Rating (1-5): **

Aging veteran Dont’a Hightower remains to lead a young group that must step up to the challenge. New England asks its linebacker to do a lot in its multiple fronts, so there could be some ups and downs with the transition of talent in the group in 2020.