Times have changed. What was once available to Bill Belichick at the linebacker position every year is no longer. At least, what was once available to Belichick -- bulky 250-pound (or heavier) players entering the NFL draft -- is no longer available in bulk.
Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh put it succinctly in a conference call with reporters last week when asked about the linebacker position.
"It's a different game than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago and that player has also changed," Groh said. "There's not as many of those big linebackers, they just, they don't exist. Colleges want them smaller because they've got to be able to adapt to the college game. So, you can't just create these guys out of thin air and so -- it's with all the positions -- it's what the college game provides us. We have to just take what they are going to give us from year to year."
The Patriots have adapted. They traded for 233-pound off-the-ball linebacker Mack Wilson. Last offseason they signed 240-pounder Raekwon McMillan and drafted 235-pounder Cam McGrone. Finding players like Dont'a Hightower (265 pounds when drafted), Jamie Collins (250) and Ja'Whaun Bentley (255) are harder to come by.
That doesn't mean the Patriots are completely getting away from that mold. They just re-signed Bentley to a contract that will pay him $3 million per season. And there are a few 'backers who made our Prototypical Patriots list at the position who check in at 250 pounds or heavier.
But the change in supply from the college ranks, and Belichick's willingness to get lighter, has made projecting the "prototype" at inside linebacker a bit more difficult than it has been in years past.
Size still matters. But for those who don't have it all when it comes to their frame, football IQ, tackling, explosiveness, effort, an apparent affinity for contact and leadership traits all can help.
New England Patriots
Let's get to the list...
Devin Lloyd, Utah, 6-foot-3, 237 pounds
"He's got it all," one AFC evaluator told NBC Sports Boston this offseason. His length, range and experience as a former safety should make him an impact player in coverage. His quickness to slip blocks and instincts to get to ball-carriers before anyone else will make him an impact player against the run. And his love for the game will make him continue to grow as a player well after he gets to an NFL locker room.
He doesn't always flash the kind of power that coaches may want to see in 'backers who prefer to take on blockers head-on, but as a two-time captain and an active special-teams participant, there is no doubt about his want-to. He should be off the board well before the Patriots pick, but if he slides because of a league-wide devaluation of his position, he'd make plenty of sense in Foxboro.
Nakobe Dean, Georgia, 5-foot-11, 229 pounds
Dean certainly doesn't have the kind of frame that the Patriots have coveted in the past. But in this new era of pro football? Where covering ground matters? Where having an ability to cover backs and tight ends is vital? Dean looks like a fit. His football IQ is second-to-none, and he was viewed as an alpha among alphas on Georgia's record-setting defense last season.
He joined Next Pats recently and explained that he met with both Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia during the pre-draft process. Concerns about his size are understandable. He can get caught on blocks. And he's not the kind of freaky athlete his teammate Quay Walker is (more on him soon). But his combination of play speed -- he didn't test prior to the draft due to injury -- and football smarts would play well working in conjunction with a thumper like Bentley.
Quay Walker, Georgia, 6-foot-4, 241 pounds
One of the best (and realistically available) combinations of old-school Patriots frame with new-age athleticism in this draft class, Walker could end up being drafted ahead of Dean, according to one AFC defensive coach. His traits aren't coachable. He clocked a 4.52 40-yard dash (91st percentile) and has an 80-inch wingspan (96th). Evaluators believe he could end up as a back-end-of-the-first-round kind of selection because of his physical gifts and his upside as a matchup weapon on backs and tight ends.
He only has one season as a starter under his belt, but that may mean his best football is ahead of him. If the Patriots are looking for a big player with a ceiling that is yet to be defined, Walker could be their guy, especially since there are similarities between the system in Athens and the one run in Foxboro.
Chad Muma, Wyoming, 6-foot-3, 239 pounds
Muma had a strong performance at this year's Senior Bowl and impressed with his pre-draft testing. His jumps (40-inch vertical, 94th percentile; 10-9 broad, 95 percentile) were remarkable and indicative of real lower-body explosiveness. He also posted 27 reps of 225 pounds on the bench (87th percentile), showing his dedication to his strength and conditioning.
He's considered smart, fast and tough -- and with his Senior Bowl performance helping to eliminate concerns about the level of competition he saw in college, he could go as high as the second round.
Christian Harris, Alabama, 6-feet, 226 pounds
Harris would fit in with the strong safeties already on the Patriots roster. Even though they're open to smaller players at linebacker, there's a chance Harris is on the wrong side of 230 pounds for them. But... He has so much else going for him that would help him earn respect at One Patriots Place. "The Alabama kid will hit you," one AFC assistant said. "He's powerful and tough and explosive and he can run and hit. And he played for 'Bama so he knows that system."
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Harris transitioned from being a high school defensive back, according to The Athletic, to starting as a linebacker in Nick Saban's defense. Then he started for three years for Belichick's great friend. In the second or third round, with the Patriots getting smaller and faster at the second level, Harris would fit right in.
Leo Chenal, Wisconsin, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds
Just because there aren't many big-bodied linebackers coming from the college ranks anymore doesn't mean there aren't any. Chenal is proof of that. He's a classic Patriots-type as a thumper in the running game. He has ready-made NFL power, but he also has legitimate explosiveness and speed (4.53-second 40) that could help the Patriots keep up in an athletic AFC East.
His 31-inch arms could lead to him getting caught on blocks at times. And he's not necessarily a dynamic player in coverage at this point. But he's heavy. He hits. And if the Patriots are looking for another player who can fill the Ja'Whaun Bentley role -- and do it with much more speed -- then Chenal would make plenty of sense. He's been mentioned by our draft-expert pals as a perfect Patriot on Next Pats all offseason.
Troy Andersen, Montana State, 6-foot-3, 243 pounds
Andersen -- like Chenal and Walker and one more player who'll make our list -- could provide the best of both worlds when it comes to size and speed. He has the kind of frame Belichick typically covets. Then he went and annihilated his workout in Indy. Andersen's 4.42-second 40 was the fastest for any off-the-ball 'backer. He also broad jumped 10-8 (fifth-best) and proved that a small-school guy could be one of the best athletes at his position this year.
After a good showing at the Senior Bowl, an incredibly versatile collegiate career (played quarterback and running back) and recognition as a finalist for the Campbell Trophy (aka "the academic Heisman) he looks like he could be a Day 2 choice for the Patriots.
Channing Tindall, Georgia, 6-foot-2, 230 pounds
One of the reasons the Patriots went and traded for Mack Wilson was because even though he didn't have unbelievable size, he was an explosive hitter. The same appears to be true for Tindall, who is a ridiculous athlete for the position. He clocked a 4.47-second 40 to go along with a massive 42-inch vertical. He hails from a program the Patriots clearly respect, and as is the case for both Dean and Walker -- other Bulldogs on this list -- there are some similarities between what the Patriots do defensively and what Georgia has done under Kirby Smart.
Tindall also has significant kick-coverage experience, which will help him fit right in as a player looking to establish a role as a pro in Foxboro.
Brandon Smith, Penn State, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds
Another big boy here. He's raw. He's inconsistent. But he's long (34.5-inch arms, 98th percentile), and he can fly (4.52-second 40, 91st percentile). Those are traits you can't teach. One AFC linebackers coach told NBC Sports Boston that Smith has "first-round" talent. He could be a versatile off-the-ball linebacker with flexibility to drop down and play on the edge, which the Patriots have done with their more versatile athletes for years. In that sense, he could be a successor to Jamie Collins.
There are questions about his focus and his drive that could drop him into the Day 3 conversation. But his physical characteristics are rare, and perhaps the Patriots would be willing to gamble on those earlier than that.
Darrian Beavers, Cincinnati, 6-foot-4, 243 pounds
Beavers played in the 250-pound range for the Bearcats, getting experience both off the line of scrimmage and on the edge. He even saw safety snaps early in his college career. His is a background that's reminiscent of what Collins did during his time at Southern Miss. While Beavers may not be the athlete Collins was... he can move. At 243 pounds at his pro day, he ran a 4.69-second 40 to go along with a whopping 39-inch vertical and a 6.93-second three-cone drill.
Beavers also saw work at the Senior Bowl and could be the kind of versatile front-seven piece Belichick wouldn't hesitate to snag. My understanding is he could be a Day 3 choice.
Micah McFadden, Indiana, 6-foot-1, 240 pounds
If the Patriots want someone who plays like Chenal but don't want to spend a Day 2 pick on him, perhaps McFadden will be more their speed. He's not quite as big as Chenal (he weighed 234 pounds at his pro day) or as fast (4.62-second 40). But this two-time captain is a downhill striker who looks like he could excel as a second-level blitzer in New England's scheme. Plus, his 6.88-second three-cone time is indicative of the fact that he's a better change-of-direction athlete than some of his tape would indicate.
As a special-teamer with two-down upside defensively, McFadden feels like a potential Patriots pick. From a traits perspective, he matches up similarly with guys already on the roster like Wilson and McGrone.
Malcolm Rodriguez, Oklahoma State, 5-foot-11, 232 pounds
Rodriguez is a former safety and undersized, but he was up to 236 pounds for his pro day. He's not the explosive hitter that the Patriots would like -- Harris, for instance, still thumps despite his frame -- but he's a former quarterback, an accomplished defensive diagnoser (409 tackles in 60 career games) and a two-time captain. He has just 30-inch arms, which could lead to him getting swallowed up in the run game as a pro. But he forced four fumbles last season and broke up six passes, helping him earn first-team All-American status.
Mike Rose, Iowa State, 6-foot-4, 245 pounds
Rose was a four-year starter for the Cyclones and is considered among the smartest linebackers in this year's draft class. With old-school size on top of those qualities, he feels like the kind of Day 3 choice that could interest Belichick. His 6.94-second three-cone time at his pro day was impressive, as was his 4.69-second 40. He's not a massive hitter, and he's not an incredibly explosive athlete. but his effort is going to be consistent, and he has the looks of a core special-teamer even though he didn't play much in the kicking game as a collegian.