Bill Belichick's assessment of New England Patriots' young linebackers critical to future

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Before coach Bill Belichick can decisively address the New England Patriots' needs this offseason, he first needs to determine what he already has on the roster. Perhaps no position is more important in that area than linebacker.

The position was part of the core of past Patriots championship teams, with Tedy Bruschi, Bryan Cox, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer and Mike Vrabel solidifying things in the early 2000s. In the more recent championship runs, Rob Ninkovich, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo and Kyle Van Noy were key contributors.

How far the current Patriots are from stocking their linebacker room with championship-caliber talent takes some forecasting because of how young they are.

"When you look at the early 2000 Patriots and the later 2000 Patriots, they always had a group of 'backers that were consistently there for a long period of time," said Ninkovich, who retired in 2017 and now works as an ESPN analyst. "In 2020, it was just different. You didn't have guys who had been there, and played together, and that takes a toll on your production."

Ninkovich cited his first season with the Patriots, in 2009, as an example of how things ideally would work.

"I didn't have to be a starter, because they had guys in front of me -- Adalius Thomas, Tedy Bruschi. Jerod Mayo. Tully Banta-Cain, who was a good player. You could just kind of watch those guys. And when I did get into the game with Tedy, he just says, 'Hey go do this!' I was like, 'OK, that's easy.'

"I felt like this year with some of the younger players it was like, 'Hey, you're all we got! Go out there.' So that can be tough when you're trying to learn on the fly."

While high-potential youngsters such as 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche and recent third-rounders Anfernee Jennings (2020) and Chase Winovich (2019) were learning on the fly, so too was Belichick about them.

Belichick believes that will help the Patriots in 2021, as he now has a better idea of how the pieces fit. Uche (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) said he basically played on one down at Michigan, which made his transition to the NFL more challenging.

"We were kind of trying to figure out early what his best spot would be, and took a little while for all that to materialize," Belichick said. "He's a good football player and we'll be able to define his role and his situation much better next year. ... he's got a good future."

Uche, who is recovering from a foot injury suffered in a Week 16 loss to the Bills, caught Ninkovich's eye as a pass-rusher.

"He had some pretty good lean and turning of the hips; the ability to turn and get to the quarterback," he said.

That's also the area where Winovich has made his biggest mark, recording a team-leading 5.5 sacks each of his first two pro seasons.

But while Belichick referred to Winovich as a three-down linebacker earlier in the year, that didn't always materialize on a weekly basis. Winovich was active for every game in 2020, but totaled 59% of the defensive snaps, with former practice-squad edge-setter Tashawn Bower sometimes getting the nod over him on early downs.

Ninkovich has a suggestion that might help Winovich, 25, elevate to a higher level.

"At 240-ish, 245 [pounds], he would be best suited if he's on the line of scrimmage going against 320-pound monsters to be 260," he said.

Meanwhile, Jennings might be an example of a player who was asked to do too much, too soon. He played a season-high 53 snaps in a Week 6 loss to the 49ers, and struggled. The Patriots used him on the line of scrimmage, at outside linebacker and in an off-the-line role.

Jennings (6-3, 259) might have been further ahead than the traditional rookie because of his background playing in a similar scheme under Nick Saban at Alabama, but in a perfect Patriots world, he would have been eased into the mix (27% playing time). Yet Hightower opting out of the season, coupled with the free-agent departures of Van Noy, Collins and Elandon Roberts, thrust him into a tough spot.

"Playing D-end, linebacker, 3-4, 4-3 -- all those different positions, it kind of takes time to develop that," Ninkovich said.

One major boost in 2021 would be if Hightower returns, but that is far from a guarantee. And even if he does, he's closer to the end of his career than the beginning, so the development of younger 'backers remains critical.

Bruschi, in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI on Wednesday, said watching safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger play linebacker-type roles in 2020 was eye-opening to him.

"I just look at the linebacker position ... and I'm like 'Man, they must be really bad at that position if this is the case.' I love the way the two safeties grinded in there, but that's not really the way it should be for successful defenses. That's my whole thing: Can we get a couple guys in there with '50' numbers who can get the job done? I think that's a big thing next year."

Ninkovich sees promise in inside linebackers Ja'Whaun Bentley (6-2, 255) and Terez Hall (6-2, 235).

"I like Bentley a lot. He gets into the line of scrimmage well. He'll hit you," he said. "If he can work on some of his coverage stuff outside of the tackle box, where he's in space, then that's going to help his game.

"[Hall] had a little something to him when he got his chance. When you're watching any inside 'backer, you want to see him make clear decisions on attacking the line of scrimmage. So when you know it's a run, go get it. He was getting in there. ... the physical side of it can't really be taught. ... I liked what I saw out of him."

Similar to Bentley, who enters his fourth NFL season, Hall will have to prove he can flex out and be competitive in coverage. After signing as an undrafted free agent in 2019 out of Missouri, he caught Belichick's eye after being promoted from the practice squad midway through the 2020 campaign.

"His improvements have been steady but significant, and I think he still has room to get better," Belichick said of Hall. "It's a good story about a player who's put in day after day after day, after two years of hard consistent work, and it's paid off."

As Belichick assessed some of his young players late last season, he made a point that seems to apply, in large part, to his young linebackers.

"Any time you have more information, I think it's an advantage in the decision-making process," he said. "I'd say sometimes with the complexity of what we do, when multiple positions are involved, sometimes that could slow a younger player down a little bit trying to understand everything. So going forward, I think we'll be able to do a better job of identifying and teaching them how they'll be able to help us the most."

To Ninkovich, that type of experience is invaluable for a linebacker position still in transition.

"It takes time and it also takes a little bit of ... confidence building to realize, 'Hey, I'm pretty good. I can do this at a high level consistently over and over again.' That's when you start to have something special, and start to build a good defense."