Taking a closer look at Patriots linebacker options after Harris signing

Taking a closer look at Patriots linebacker options after Harris signing

While it remains to be seen how exactly David Harris will fit into Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defensive scheme, he is a known commodity in terms of his instincts and football IQ. 

Will those traits be enough to earn him a key role immediately? And with whom will he be competing for time alongside Dont'a Hightower? 

Let's have a look at what the Patriots have at the linebacker spot now that Harris is in the mix.

Dont'a Hightower, 6-foot-3, 265 pounds: The signal-caller for the Patriots defense and a first-time captain last season, Hightower opted to re-sign with the team as an unrestricted free agent for a deal worth $35.5 million over four years. Hightower is an every-down player who is critical to the team's ability to stop the run. He's also improved significantly in coverage over the course of his career to the point where he's one of the best at his position at limiting yards after the catch. And when he's asked to rush the passer, he's among the game's most efficient in that regard. His strip-sack of Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI was the turning point in New England's improbable comeback win. 

David Harris, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds: Among the former Jet's best qualities is his durability, as he has missed just one regular-season game (it came in 2016) in the last eight seasons. The 33-year-old's percentage of snaps played between 2009 and 2015 reads as follows, according to Pro Football Focus: 94.8 percent, 97.0, 93.2, 99.4, 99.8, 99.4, 92.2. Harris possesses the size the Patriots often look for in their middle linebackers, and he has experience serving as the primary communicator for a defense, which Belichick and Patricia would likely value. In 2014, Harris tied his career-high in sacks with 5.5. Per PFF he was fifth among linebackers last season in terms of yards allowed per coverage snap (0.73). 

Elandon Roberts, 6-feet, 235 pounds: Going into his second year out of the University of Houston, Roberts made eye-opening plays as a rookie in the running game, using his strength and anticipation to occasionally overpower linemen. With a full NFL offseason under his belt, Roberts would land in the category of second-year players who could make a "leap" headed into 2017. He played 35 percent of defensive snaps for the Patriots last year. 

Kyle Van Noy, 6-foot-3, 243 pounds: Van Noy's relatively unique combination of size and athleticism makes him another versatile piece for Belichick and Patricia. After arriving to the Patriots via trade mid-season last year, he was frequently used in coverage in the middle of the field and deployed as a blitzer. He had 34 tackles in 10 games with the Patriots (including playoffs) and recorded a half-sack in the Super Bowl. 

Shea McClellin, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds: After Hightower and Jamie Collins, it was Shea McClellin who played more snaps in 2016 than any other Patriots linebacker (382). A versatile option, McClellin was spotted often playing opposite Rob Ninkovich as an end-of-the-line pass-rusher during OTAs and minicamp this spring. He has experience playing off-the-line as well, but seemed to be more of a fill-in option in that role last season. 

Jonathan Freeny, 6-foot-2, 255 pounds: Freeny saw 453 defensive snaps in 2015, which was more than any other Patriots linebacker after Hightower and Collins. He spent most of 2016 on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, but returned to participate in practices this spring -- albeit while wearing a red non-contact jersey. An experienced special-teamer, Freeny could be one of the team's top linebackers in the kicking game if healthy. He signed a two-year extension with the Patriots last August. 

Harvey Langi, 6-foot-2, 252 pounds: The Patriots signed Langi to an undrafted free agent deal that reportedly guaranteed him $115,000 -- more money than any other undrafted rookie in this year's class. He played both as an edge defender and off the line at BYU and may need to prove to the team that he has value in the kicking game in order to make the roster. Fellow undrafted rookie 'backer Brooks Ellis and 2016 practice-squadder Trevor Bates seem to fall into a similar category. 

Patriots reportedly sign former Jets LB David Harris to two-year pact

Patriots reportedly sign former Jets LB David Harris to two-year pact

There weren't many spots on the Patriots roster that needed an upgrade before Wednesday. One could have made the argument, though, that there were question marks at linebacker.

The Patriots took a step toward answering any uncertainty at that spot by signing former Jets 'backer David Harris, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Harris, 33, was released earlier this month as the Jets made moves to get some salary-cap relief. He played more snaps (900) than any other Jets defender in 2016 not named Darrelle Revis and finished the season with one sack, one quarterback hit and 11 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus. 

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long admired the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder for his durability and his ability to communicate with teammates, serving as a link between the Jets secondary and its defensive line. He played in 15 games last season, which was the first time he missed a regular-season game since 2008.

"I have a lot of respect for David Harris," Belichick said back in 2014. "That guy is, first of all, he never comes of the field. Not [just] this year, but any year. The guy is like a 98, 99 percent playtime player for them every year, year after year.

"It’s obviously as defense that has a lot of communication and adjustments and he’s certainly at the center of that, both as the signal caller and then at the line of scrimmage you can see him adjusting the front or making some type of communication calls to his teammates.

"He’s a very instinctive player, which unfortunately we’ve seen that firsthand. He does a good job for them. He’s been very consistent, durable, dependable, productive over a long period of time . . . He’s out there in every situation: third-and-inches or third-and-40. You’re going to find him out there doing something. He’s a big, explosive guy. [He] can rush, can cover, good run player and instinctive. He knows where the ball is so that accounts for a lot of his production."

The Patriots have a handful of players who will now compete for time alongside last year's captain and recently re-signed linebacker Dont'a Hightower in Harris, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin and Jonathan Freeny. Undrafted rookies Harvey Langi and Brooks Ellis were added this offseason to give the linebacker room some depth.

Takeaways from OTAs and minicamp: Cooks, Gilmore already impressing

Takeaways from OTAs and minicamp: Cooks, Gilmore already impressing

FOXBORO -- OK. Now it's the offseason. Really. This time we mean it. 

The Patriots had their last spring practice on Thursday, meaning that until the end of July, when training camp begins, everyone is on vacation. Players, coaches, executives. All off. 

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With no on-the-field access for more than a month, here's one last run-through of the things we learned in Patriots OTAs and minicamp.

* Tom Brady is still decidedly out of his mind when it comes to his energy and level of competitiveness. During one of the first OTA practices open to reporters, he hit DJ Foster with a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone toward the end of the session and celebrated the thing as though they had just clinched the AFC East. Physically, Brady looks the same as he has in recent "passing camps." He was generally very accurate with the football. 

* For as good as Brady looked, Jimmy Garoppolo still probably throws the tightest deep ball of any Patriots quarterback. He had several opportunities to put that on display before suffering a leg injury that kept him on the sidelines for the final few snaps of minicamp and all of Tuesday's workout. 

* Jacoby Brissett is moving in the right direction. He impressed with his ability to make checks at the line and complete long throws with touch. At this time last year, the strong-armed passer could be found chucking throws into the stands when he wasn't sure about where to go with the football. During spring work, he seemed to make progressions quickly and take the short-to-intermediate throws when they were there. He knows he's not a "young pup" anymore, and he's hoping to move up the depth chart. 

* Brandin Cooks is able to reach a different gear than most of his teammates. At one practice, he caught a crossing route from Garoppolo and was able to out-run three defensive backs on his way to the end zone. He's also shown good early chemistry with Brady, catching a high-degree-of-difficulty back-shoulder throw deep down the sideline with Malcolm Butler in tight coverage. He went out of his way to spend a little extra time with Brady following one spring session that was open to media, and it appears as though those mini-summits have already started to pay dividends. 

* Rob Gronkowski declared himself "100 percent" early this spring, and he looked it. He did not hesitate to leave his feet for contested catches, and there were plenty -- particularly with Patrick Chung or Jordan Richards in coverage. We'll get a better sense of what Gronkowski can do in training camp when the pads come on, but the early returns have been positive for the tight end who recently was given an incentive-laden restructured deal for 2017. 

* While Cooks may have another gear in terms of his speed, there's another newcomer to the Patriots whose athleticism stood out at OTAs. Stephon Gilmore is smooth. He transitioned quickly from his backpedal into a sprint, and when he showed good body control when contesting passes at their highest point. Gilmore often seemed to be in tight man coverage, and he didn't let up when passes were completed in his direction. Though there was no contact during these practices, he was consistently reaching in and trying to pry footballs loose at the last minute. 

* Let's continue to roll through the veterans in their first year with the Patriots. Dwayne Allen admitted that he wished his first on-the-field work with his new club had been a little more hiccup-free. He dropped a handful of passes during practices open to the media, and he looked a little tight as he attacked throws that forced him to try to extend his catch radius. Following Tuesday's practice, he spent extra time with Brady and fellow tight end James O'Shaughnessy to get a few more reps in before heading inside for the day. 

* Rex Burkhead had his share of up and down moments in spring work as well. Though he showed good hands in his opportunities catching passes out of the backfield with Brady and Garoppolo, he needed a little additional coaching from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels at times to decipher the nuances of certain routes based on the coverages in front of him. How Burkhead is able to pick up the Patriots offense, particularly his responsibilities as a route-runner and pass-protector, will be fascinating to track in training camp. If those things come to him quickly, he could be an interesting dual-threat option out of the backfield. Burkhead also saw kick-coverage responsibilities during OTAs.

* Here are a few names you may not know yet, but who could garner more attention as real football gets closer: 1) O'Shaughnessy, acquired in a draft-weekend trade with the Chiefs, appeared to be the smoothest-receiving tight end of the group after Gronkowski. 2) Undrafted rookie safety David Jones out of Richmond is an intriguing athlete at 6-foot-3 and a shade over 200 pounds. He was used as a returner in the kicking game, and there was a point during Tuesday's practice where he got a little work with what would be considered primarily the first group of Patriots defensive backs. He missed half of last season for the Spiders due to a fractured forearm, but if he can stay healthy he's an NFL athlete. He ran a 4.43-second 40 at his pro day and jumped 34 inches in the vertical. 3) Harvey Langi is a name you may have heard because he was the highest-paid undrafted rookie in this year's class. He saw time as an off-the-ball linebacker this spring and made an interception of Brissett off of a tipped pass during the last sequence of 11-on-11 work Thursday. Langi could have an opportunity to earn a roster spot based on the fact that he plays a position that could potentially use some depth behind Dont'a Hightower, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy. But he was also working extensively with special teams coach Joe Judge this spring. Another off-the-ball linebacker who saw plenty of work on "teams" was Arkansas product Brooks Ellis. 

* Injuries are always part of the story for any team during the spring and summer, and the Patriots are no exception. Malcolm Mitchell, Hightower, Duron Harmon, Lawrence Guy and Kony Ealy all missed practice time at various points. Alan Branch was a limited participant during mandatory minicamp practices and was not present for OTAs, as is typically the case for him as he chooses to stay with family in Arizona during optional offseason workouts. Because all of those players figure to play important roles on this year's club, their status bears watching when training camp begins. Undrafted rookie offensive lineman Andrew Jelks also missed time. He missed Vanderbilt's last two seasons with knee injuries. Back in March, Vandy coach Derek Mason -- who was invited to watch Patriots spring practices by Bill Belichick -- said Jelks "was the best player coming into this program when I got here."