Tom E. Curran

Patriots 2024 roster reset: Re-signing Jennings should be priority at LB

How can the Patriots replicate their 2023 success at linebacker this season?

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Editor's Note: With the beginning of NFL free agency looming on March 13, our Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran is resetting each Patriots position by assessing their 2023 performance, laying out their 2024 contract status and ranking their offseason priority on a scale of 1 to 5.

Curran has covered quarterbackswide receivers, running backs, tight ends, offensive linemen and defensive backs. Next up: Linebackers.

Was there any position group on the team more well-coached, consistent and productive than the Patriots linebackers? I don’t think so.

In an evolving league where the definition of what a second-level is in constant flux, the Patriots had the right mix and ingredients in 2023.

Bright spots in 2023

Start with Jahlani Tavai. Matt Patricia was the catalyst for bringing the former Lions second-round pick to New England. He’s been a great add. He played in 17 games with 110 tackles (up from 69 in 2022), five tackles for loss, two interceptions, a sack and four quarterback hits and was a full-on presence every week. He was also excellent in coverage, allowing a QB rating of 69.5 after allowing a 94.6 rating in 2022.

Another huge bright spot was Anfernee Jennings, who went from being a bit player his first two years to starting 14 games in the wake of Matt Judon’s season-ending injury. He wasn’t giving the same pass-rush impact, but he was an edge-setter extraordinaire with 66 tackles and an absurd 14 tackles for loss among those 66.

The anchor of the linebacker crew, Ja'Whaun Bentley, started 16 games and finished with 114 tackles. He was the best rush linebacker of the interior guys, winding up with 4.5 sacks and 12 QB hits. He blitzed 77 times, up from 51 and 32 the two previous seasons. Coverage isn’t his strong suit as an old-school linebacker, but he wasn’t a full-on liability either.

Last one to mention is Mack Wilson. He’s a depth guy who was used liberally on special teams, but he’s a sleek player who made contributions in the regular defense, too, when summoned (37 tackles, four tackles for loss, four QB hits, three PBUs and two forced fumbles along with 3.5 sacks).

Disappointments from 2023

Tough year on two counts. First, the torn biceps Judon suffered in Week 4 ended his season. He was on pace for another huge season (four sacks when he went down).

Second, Josh Uche wasn’t able to follow up his 2022 season (11.5 sacks, though a bushel coming in a short span against bad teams) with an impactful 2023. He finished the year with three sacks. Without Judon on the field, it was easier for teams to slide attention Uche’s way.

It's interesting that – despite the loss of their two best rushers – the Patriots were still one of the league’s stingiest defenses.

Contract statuses for 2024

Judon, 32, has the team’s biggest cap hit ($14.675 million) with $6.5 million in base salary and $7.94 million in prorated signing bonus. None of the salary is guaranteed. He has a void year in his deal next year so he’s basically in the last year of his contract.

Bentley, 28, is a relative bargain with a base of $2.3 million and a cap hit of $6.7 million when all his LTBE and prorated bonuses are rolled together. His contract is up after next season. His $13.5 million deal is 14th among linebackers in APY.

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Tavai, 28, entering the last year of his deal, shouldn’t feel bad asking for a raise. His base salary is $1.265 million; his cap hit is $3.15 million. The APY of his deal is $2.2 million, less than Patriots special teams staple Chris Board ($2.6 million).

Jennings, Wilson and Uche are free agents, and Jennings should be the priority re-sign among those three, but all have continuing value.

Uche has a skill set as a pass rusher that may draw the most outside interest. He doesn’t get the run here that he probably needs to showcase his full skills.

Offseason priority (Scale of 1-5)

It's a 2. I’d put it at 1 but Jennings was so friggin’ good last year, you’d hate to see them wave goodbye to him. Especially with Judon getting up there in age.

I’d also prioritize extending Tavai and giving him a bump. He’s a durable player and is the kind of guy you want on board if this Patriots defense is going to continue being the backbone of the team while they sort out the mess on offense.

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