Phil Perry

Prototypical Patriots: Hard-hitting LBs to target in later rounds

Can the Patriots unearth a Day 3 gem at the linebacker position?

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Times have changed. 

What was once available to the Patriots at the linebacker position every year is no longer. At least, what was once available -- bulky 250-pound (or heavier) players entering the NFL Draft -- is no longer available in bulk.

"It's a different game than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago and that player has also changed," Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said two years ago. "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.

"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."

While finding players like new inside linebackers coach Dont'a Hightower (265 pounds when drafted), Jamie Collins (250) and Ja'Whaun Bentley (255) are harder to come by, that's the body type the Patriots still prefer when it comes to the inside linebacker position. 

Bentley and Jahlani Tavai (255 pounds) were the two most frequently used linebackers on the roster in 2023 -- 984 and 838 snaps, respectively -- and both fell in the top five in snaps played for Patriots defenders last season.

Size still matters. But for those who don't have it all when it comes to their frame, football IQ, tackling, explosiveness, effort, an affinity for contact and leadership traits all can help. 

For this edition of the Prototypes list, we're looking for players who weighed 235 pounds at minimum prior to the draft. And they have to have an old-school approach when it comes to the physicality they've exhibited, meaning they won't hesitate to take on guards and relentlessly pursue downhill in a scheme that asks their off-ball linebackers to be throwbacks. 

Here's the list...

Junior Colson, Michigan (6-foot-2, 238 pounds)

Colson is widely considered to be at the top of the list of the undersized types who pack a punch at the position in this year's class. And when we say "undersized," we should clarify: undersized for the Patriots.

He has almost 33-inch arms with a frame verging on 240 pounds. That's on the bigger side in 2024 at inside linebacker. And he plays big. He'll take on blockers with aggression, and he's an excellent tackler.

Colson also won the Lott IMPACT Trophy (Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, Tenacity) last year. Feels like a fit both on and off the field.

Payton Wilson, NC State (6-foot-4, 236 pounds)

NC State linebacker Payton Wilson
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
NC State linebacker Payton Wilson earned the Chuck Bednarik Defensive Player of the Year Award for his efforts in 2023.

Special athlete. Special competitor. Wilson clocked a 4.43-second 40 time at this year's combine, ranking him in the 97th percentile. He also took home the Chuck Bednarik Defensive Player of the Year Award as well as the Butkus Award for his performance in 2023. He was fifth in FBS with 138 tackles, and for the last three years he's been a captain for the Wolfpack.

Can he add a little weight to take on the rigors of playing the position in New England? Can he stay healthy after a litany of knee and shoulder issues dating back to his high school days? He certainly has the demeanor and play style to fit in Jerod Mayo's system.

Curtis Jacobs, Penn State (6-foot-1, 241 pounds)

There have been few programs more likely to send freaky front-seven defenders to the NFL than Penn State.

While Jacobs won’t be confused for Micah Parsons any time soon, he was a three-year starter for the Nittany Lions and posted some impressive numbers of his own at this year’s combine. His 4.58-second 40 put him in the 82nd percentile and his 10-foot-4 broad placed him in the 85th percentile.

Pair those with some massive mitts (11 inches, 98th percentile), and it’s easy to see there’s something to work with here. Jacobs' experience, frame and explosiveness make him one of the best Patriots fits at this position in the class. 

Jaylan Ford, Texas (6-foot-2, 240 pounds)

Experienced (49 games played). High football IQ. Captain. Two-time All-Big 12 selection. Led the Longhorns in tackles each of the last two years. Explosive (10-foot-6 broad jump). Didn’t miss a game in four years. Ford is one of the best fits in this class at 240 pounds.

One excellent nugget from Dane Brugler’s “The Beast” draft guide for The Athletic: Ford keeps a football card of Dick Butkus in his wallet. Think that’s the kind of old-school linebacker Mayo and Hightower would appreciate?

Tommy Eichenberg, Ohio State (6-foot-2, 235 pounds)

Highlights of Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg

Eichenberg is far from the best athlete on this list. But that kind of timed speed isn't typically high on the list of priorities for Patriots linebackers. He knows where to go once the ball is snapped, and when he's gotten his hands on ball-carriers at the college level, they typically go down.

He's tough and willing to sacrifice himself in taking out a lead blocker. His mindset is what the Patriots are looking for. Get downhill. Take care of your responsibilities.

He's right on the line of being too light for this list -- he weighed in at 233 pounds at the combine but was slightly heavier at his pro day -- but if the Patriots are willing to invest in him early on Day 3, they may deem him a fit. 

Cedric Gray, North Carolina (6-foot-1, 241 pounds)

He may be more of a run-and-chase “Will” than a true downhill thumping “Mike.” But as one of only a few members of the 240-plus club in this year’s draft, Gray’s frame lands him here.

If the Patriots are looking for a developmental off-ball linebacker alongside Bentley — perhaps someone who can allow Tavai to play a bit more on the edge — then Gray feels like a fit. With an impressive 35.5-inch vertical, which helped lead to a strong 8.04 Relative Athletic Score from Kent Lee Platte, Gray clearly has NFL-caliber athleticism. 

Edefuan Ulofoshio, Washington (6-foot-1, 237 pounds)

Washington Huskies linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
A former walk-on from Anchorage, Alaska, Ulofoshio won Washington's team’s Guy Flaherty Award, voted by his teammates as the most inspirational player in the program.

This former walk-on, straight out of Anchorage, Alaska, isn’t the quickest ‘backer on this list. But that won’t keep him off. Especially since the Patriots value toughness and power more than ranginess at this position. Ulofoshio is a sure tackler with a sparkling off-field reputation.

He may be a Day 3 choice who carves a role on special teams to begin his career. With time, though — especially with how he approaches his job — defensive reps could be there for him in the foreseeable future.

Ulofoshio was a captain for Washington and he won the team’s Guy Flaherty Award, voted by his teammates as the most inspirational player in the program.

JD Bertrand, Notre Dame (6-foot-1, 235 pounds)

At linebacker, better to run a slower 40 and know where you’re going than to run a quick one and have no clue. Bertrand might not be the best second-level athlete Notre Dame has ever had, but he was a two-time captain for the Irish and one of their leading voices defensively.

A finalist for the Campbell Trophy Award (also known as “the academic Heisman") and an Eagle Scout, Bertrand figures to be a real culture add for someone’s franchise on Day 3. He also plays with a fearless bent that the Patriots would appreciate. He’s not massive, but there are a number of other reasons why he belongs on this list.  

Marist Liufau, Notre Dame (6-foot-2, 235 pounds)

Liufau has serious arm length (34.3 inches, 95th percentile) that should help him in all phases at the next level. He's light for the Patriots, but he plays with his hair on fire and wouldn't shy away from the physical responsibilities he'd be asked to carry out for Hightower, defensive coordinator DeMarcus Covington and Mayo.

If steered in the right direction by that trio, Liufau could contribute in the Patriots scheme both defensively and in the kicking game. 

Bo Richter, Air Force (6-foot-1, 248 pounds)

Richter often played on the edge at Air Force, but he has the mentality and the size to play off the line in New England. His willingness to throw his body around is apparent, and his motor is unrelenting.

He had 10 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last season. Plus, he's an explosive athlete, having recorded a 40-inch vertical and a 10-foot-4 broad jump at his pro day.

Richter is one of the few on this list who actually fits the suit the Patriots are looking for with their super-sized 'backers, making his name one worth remembering late on draft weekend.

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