Are the Patriots telling us something by not investing more at linebacker?


Along with a dynamic wide receiver and a cornerback, a three-down, game-changing linebacker was one of the more common items on Patriots fans' wish lists ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft.

But when it was all said and done, New England didn't just pass on the likes of Quay Walker, Devin Lloyd, Nakobe Dean, Leo Chenal, and the like. They didn't take one single linebacker from this year's fairly deep class at the position.

Of course, this can rightly be read as an endorsement of the crew the Patriots already have, which includes 2021 standout Ja'Whaun Bentley, versatile free-agent signee Mack Wilson, veteran Raekwon McMillan, and 2021 fifth-round pick Cameron McGrone.

Bentley and Wilson seem like the clubhouse leaders to get the first crack at inside linebacker when training camp starts, with McMillan also getting some playing time on Monday at Patriots OTAs. McGrone didn't participate in the initial practice but said he's healthy after recovering from an ACL tear before the 2021 NFL Draft.

But perhaps a look back at Bill Belichick's old scouting notes suggests people were looking for a change in the linebacker room that was never going to come.

Here are Belichick's circa 1991 thoughts on what he wants out of inside linebackers in his defense as relayed by NFL Network's Dan Jeremiah, who discovered the coach's old notes from his first head coaching gig with the Cleveland Browns.

"Inside LBs: Has to be able to play in close quarters, instinctive, explosive tacklers who can face up and knock guys back. Can play zone defense and not be put in man-to-man situations. Good blitzers. Must be football smart. Don't need great intelligence. Need instincts. Quickness and aggressiveness, leverage and explosive power."

Read that, and then look at what the Patriots have assembled at linebacker.

Aside from Wilson, who would probably be the best coverage option in nickel situations, New England's linebacker group is stacked with more two-down thumper types who can play the run and typically not hurt you in zone situations.

The main difference from this year to last: they're now a bit smaller and faster at the position than they were with Dont'a Hightower and Bentley in the starting lineup. Assuming McGrone is healthy, his college tape suggests he can play with similar range, short-area explosiveness, and blitzing ability to some of the Day 2 prospects people were targeting this draft for New England.

Why not meaningfully change the linebacker model after watching Josh Allen and the Bills trample all over the defense at the end of the 2021-22 season? Perhaps because linebacker isn't the key to stopping teams like Buffalo anymore.

Looking back at the Patriots' defensive snap counts from 2021, their sub-packages, especially their three-safety nickel lineups, were highly prevalent as a means to counter offenses' desires to spread them out. Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, and Kyle Dugger were all in the top seven in snaps played, and Phillips and Dugger often play in the box with McCourty manning the deep middle.

Their physicality combined with their coverage abilities essentially put another third-down linebacker on the field, which makes playing two linebackers less necessary. Throw in Jabrill Peppers, another hybrid safety-linebacker, and it wouldn't be surprising to see some lineups with no linebackers on the field at all.

In essence, perhaps the Patriots are fine with the linebackers they have because, well, they're just not going to rely on them as much as expected. Additionally, it's likely the things they will rely on them for -- taking on offensive guards, or sprinting sideline-to-sideline, or keeping the ball in front of them on first and third-down passing situations -- don't require the presence of a multi-dimensional stud linebacker to accomplish.

It's a gamble, especially if they start faltering against the run as they did down the stretch last season or get exposed in coverage repeatedly when defenses test them. But it might also represent a tacit acknowledgment by Belichick of his need to adapt as NFL offenses morph around him. It just might be taking a different form than people figured.