Perry: Prototypical Patriots outside linebackers in 2022 NFL Draft class

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You may not think of it as a need, but you probably should. There's not a whole lot of certainty on the outside linebacker depth chart in New England at the moment.

The Patriots paid big bucks last offseason to land Matthew Judon. But who would you pencil in opposite him as a full-timer?Ā 

Would it be Josh Uche, a second-rounder in 2020 who's missed 12 games through his first two seasons? How about Ronnie Perkins, a rookie last year who didn't see a game-day snap? Can Anfernee Jennings -- a third-rounder in 2020 -- be counted on after missing all of last season?

The Patriots will often play Deatrich Wise as one of their sub-package edge defenders. He's more of a 4-3 end playing in a scheme that is rooted in a 3-4 philosophy, but he remains productive and should have a key role once again in 2022.

But after releasing Kyle Van Noy ... After trading Chase Winovich ... With plans for Dont'a Hightower still unknown ... It sure seems as though the Patriots could use another versatile body to man the edge opposite Judon.

Players with top-end talent at that spot tend to be drafted early, but league evaluators will tell you this is a relatively deep edge class. And there are a variety who fit what the Patriots have typically invested in under Bill Belichick: players who check in around 250 pounds or more, with 33-inch arms and almost 10-inch hands, with broad jumps that sniff 10 feet and three-cone times nearing the 7.00-second mark.

Let's take a look at some of the best fits for the Patriots in this year's draft class ...

Jermaine Johnson, Florida State, 6-foot-5, 254 pounds

Let's go ahead and coast past three of the best players in this year's draft class. The Patriots won't have a crack at drafting Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, Georgia's Travon Walker or Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, in all likelihood. All would be considered fits on the edge for the Patriots based on their size and athletic profiles. All are also pipe dreams for a team drafting at No. 21.

The same could end up being true for Johnson, who could be a top-eight selection, one league source told NBC Sports Boston. But we'll keep Johnson here in case runs on tackles and receivers end up pushing him down the board and within range for Belichick. His 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands are built to control the point of attack on the outside, but he also has enough athleticism to be unleashed on third downs. He posted a 4.58-second 40 time and a 10-foot-5 broad jump at this year's combine.

Add in the fact that he was a force against top-flight competition at the Senior Bowl, something the Patriots value highly, and this feels like the kind of pick Belichick wouldn't have to mull long.

"He's tough as [expletive]," one AFC defensiveĀ assistant said. "Really physical on tape. Finishes. Powerful. I don't think he's the most fluid, but he has really good power as a rusher. It's not his skill set to dip and run around. He's aboutĀ length. Nastiness. My guess is that's what [the Patriots would] like as an edge rusher."

George Karlaftis, Purdue, 6-foot-4, 263 pounds

Karlaftis doesn't have the length of some others on this list, but he fits the bill for the Patriots with his 33-inch arms and 10-inch hands. His 38-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-1 broad jump more than meet New England's standards. And then there's his production. He was a three-year starter for the Fightin' Ninkoviches, and he posted 14.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss in 27 games. Strong. Violent. Polished.

"I think Karlaftis is like Brandon Graham," said one AFC assistant. "Good burst. Really good power and feel and locating the quarterback like Brandon Graham has. I think Karalaftis is more advanced and a better rusher, better film [than Johnson]."

If the Patriots like the idea of adding a pro's pro at a premium position with pick No. 21, Karlaftis could be their guy.Ā  Ā 

Drake Jackson, USC, 6-foot-3, 275 pounds

"Enigma," said one NFC evaluator of Jackson. "One of the more talented guys in the draft. Better talent in terms of speed and length and flexibility than Jermaine Johnson or George Karlaftis. Higher upside. But you don't really know what you're getting."

That could be a problem, but not so much a problem that he'll slip into Day 3. One of Jackson's issues is that his weight has been all over the map. He weighed in the 220-pound range in 2020. He checked into the combine at 254 pounds. Then he gained 20 pounds for his pro day. Try to figure that out.

And yet ... at his pro day he ran a 7.09-second three-cone drill and anĀ impressive 4.28-second shuttle (81st percentile). He's long (34-inch arms, 10.5-inch hands) and he can move. Jackson is considered exceptionally flexible with the ability to bend better than the vast majority of players his size. And though he's athletic enough to play on the edge as a standup outside linebacker, he has enough size and power to kick inside in sub situations and see success.

There are questions about his maturity and his level of dedication to his craft -- tardiness was an issue at times for him on campus -- but he turned 21 earlier this month, and there are enough traits to work with for him to be worthy of a second-round roll of the dice. That's usually where the Patriots take their high-upside swings.

Josh Paschal, Kentucky, 6-foot-3, 268 pounds

Placing Paschal in a group of outside linebackers may be a bit misleading since at Kentucky he really played primarily as a head-up player on opposing tackles. That may make him a bit of a tweener in New England's defense, but he saw plenty of work out on the edge for the Wildcats last season (252 snaps outside the tackle, per Pro Football Focus), and he has interesting traits with which to work.

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He's extremely explosive (38-inch vertical, 90th percentile; 10-3 broad, 85th percentile) for a man carrying as much weight as he does, and he understands the importance of leverage.

He may not be the kind of edge player Belichick would want chasing jet-sweep weapons out in space, but as a rusher who can be functional both inside and out on the edge, Paschal would bring some versatility to Foxboro. He's not quite as long as Trey Flowers, but that's the kind of role he could fill for the Patriots.

David Ojabo, Michigan, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds

Can't leave the other Wolverines edge defender off this list. Unfortunately for Ojabo he tore his Achilles during his pro day. But if he starts to slide into range for the Patriots on Day 2, he has plenty of the traits they like.

His arms measured 33.5 inches and his wing span exceeded 80 inches. Hard to find humans with his frame who a 4.55-second 40 (94th percentile). Having started playing football just five years ago, Ojabo's best football is likely ahead of him if all goes well with his recovery. He'll need to fine-tune his technique and his football instincts at the next level, but he'll be a quick study if his Academic All-American recognition last year is any indication of his off-field habits.

Boye Mafe, Minnesota, 6-foot-4, 261 pounds

MafeĀ has his critics because of some perceived stiffness off the edge, but he's as explosive a Day 2 edge rusher as you'll find. His 42-inch vertical ranks him in the 99th percentile. His 40 (4.53 seconds, 96th percentile) and broad jump (10-5, 91st percentile) were also eye-popping. Though he has good size, he may be more of a sub-rusher early in his career as his work against the run wasn't prolific for the Gophers (87 tackles in 42 games).

Arnold Ebiketie, Penn State, 6-foot-3, 247 pounds

Mel Kiper Jr. told us on "The Next Pats" podcast recently that Ebiketie was one of his favorite fits for the Patriots. Easy to see why. He's considered a professional. HisĀ reputation is as someone who's mature beyond his years. He quickly became a leader for the Nittany Lions after transferring from Temple. He was the only "Iron Lion" honoree in the Penn State program for his focus on his strength and conditioning work, per The Athletic.

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He has the length (34-inch arms) and explosiveness (38-inch vertical, 10-8 broad) that should translate in pass-rushing situations at the next level, but there are some questions about his ability to play the run on the edge and be a three-down option. He may be a bit redundant if he's joining a team with Uche, but there's no question he has tantalizing traits that teams typically pay premiums for.

Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma, 6-foot-3, 248 pounds

A favorite for defensive coaches who are looking for quicks on the edge, Bonitto is a tad undersized for the Patriots. His 32.5-inch arms aren't usually what they're after. But he ran a 4.54-second 40, jumped 35.5 inches in the vertical and 10-feet in the broad. Plus, he's coming from a program the Patriots respect.

His physical gifts are considered better than those of his former teammate Perkins. If Belichick is looking to add speed to his defense, players who can make plays in space and track down the mobile quarterbacks they'll see on a nearly-weekly basis, Bonitto is a fit.

Jesse Luketa, Penn State, 6-foot-3, 253 pounds

Luketa's frame gets him into the conversation here. His athleticism -- though far from hair-raising -- is good enough. But it's everything else that solidifies his place on this list. He was a two-time captain for Penn State and a more-than-willing special-teamer who had extensive experience in the kicking game under coach James Franklin.

Luketa also has experience in a variety of roles, having played both off the line and on during his career. If the Patriots are looking for a "teams" contributor with enough versatility to play multiple roles defensively, Luketa seems like their type.

Christopher Allen, Alabama, 6-foot-3, 241 pounds

If the Patriots were to call Allen's name in this year's draft he'd likely qualify as a buy-low "value" selection. Why? He suffered a foot injury in the 2021 season opener and didn't see the field for the remainder of his final year. But the last time he was on the field for an extended period, he was dynamite, leading the SEC in tackles for loss and being named a Second Team All-SEC honoree.

He'll have to add some weight to hold up on the outside, and there are questions about how his overall athleticism will play at the next level. But if Belichick is a believer in his 2020 performance, and if he tries to project out from there, he could have an under-the-radar contributor in 2022.Ā 

Dominique Robinson, Miami (Ohio), 6-foot-3, 253 pounds

Talk about your best football being in front of you. Robinson just made the move to defense in 2020 after arriving to college as a dual-threat quarterback and then transitioning to receiver for three years. Since then he's bulked up and become one of the more intriguing athletic projections at the position in this year's class. He had an excellent 4.19-second shuttle time, as well as a ridiculous 41-inch vertical at the combine in Indy.

He still plays a bit like a receiver, which may give decision-makers reason for pause; he's not a set-the-edge type at the moment. But he has the demeanor for it. And 33-inch arms. And frankly that's not what you'd be drafting him to do, anyway. He has some special athletic gifts to get into opposing backfields and bother quarterbacks.

Amare Barno, Virginia Tech, 6-foot-5, 246 pounds

Would be weird to come across a player with Barno's length and athleticism and leave him off any list of prototypes on the edge. His athleticism is, in a word, freaky. He ran a 4.36-second 40 at this year's combine, setting a new record for defensive ends. Plus, his broad jump (10-foot-11) ranked him in the 99th percentile at the position. Wild.

The pop in his hands leaves plenty to be desired. But if he can improve his strength, perhaps with the right kind of coaching, he'll be able to mold his rare physical tools into serviceable NFL-caliber edge-rush ability. But even now, he has enough juice to be an impact blitzer, quarterback spy and special-teamer.

Jeremiah Moon, Florida, 6-foot-5, 249 pounds

Noticing a trend with this year's draft class at this particular position? There's an abundance of players with raw athletic talent. Take Moon, who will be a Day 3 choice if he's drafted. He recorded a remarkable 40.5-inch vertical and 11-foot-1 broad jump. Just wacky numbers at his size.

Add to that the fact that he hasĀ legitimate length (35-inch arms), and you have some physical characteristics that are special. He's also versatile, having played inside and outside linebacker for the Gators. But he had three different season-ending injuries as a collegian. And, as is the case with others on this list, his power is lacking. Still, as Saturday winds down, if the Patriots are looking to bet on some traits, they could take a shot with Moon.

Luiji Vilain, Wake Forest, 6-foot-4, 255 pounds

Vilain began his career under Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown but was blocked on the edge in Ann Arbor (Hutchinson, Ojabo, Uche, Winovich, Kwity Paye, Rashan Gary) and ended up transferring to Wake Forest for the 2021 season. Not a bad call. He ended up with nine sacks and three forced fumbles in 14 games for the Demon Deacons.

As far as the measurables go, he fits (34-inch arm, 11-inch hand, 7.01 three-cone drill, 35-inch vertical). He may go undrafted but has the tools to be worthy of a spot as a priority free agent.

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