The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl, and then the offseason. The Patriots had arguably the best offseason for a defending super bowl champion in the common draft era. Retained were key pieces to the team such as Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, and Jimmy Garoppolo. It’s not what New England kept per se that raised the most eyebrows, as much as what they added. Known commodities over unknown young players.
In uncharacteristic fashion, Bill Belichick gave up draft pick after draft pick to add veteran talent to an already loaded roster. Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen, Kony Ealy, James O’Shaughnessy, and Mike Gillislee were all added to the team in exchange for draft capital.
Additionally, Stephon Gilmore, Lawrence Guy, Rex Burkhead and David Harris all joined the team as free agents. With all the acquisitions of big name players, it would be easy to overlook what could very well end up being the most impactful move for this Patriots team. The signing of Harris.
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Harris’ signing is impactful to the Patriots for many reasons. The most critical of those being depth at the linebacker position. Hightower tested free agency before ultimately returning to the team. However, losses of Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, and Jamie Collins left the Patriots with not a lot of depth at the position. Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Jonathan Freeny, Elandon Roberts, and Harvey Langi would have been competing for playing time behind Hightower. Not exactly a who’s who of NFL linebackers.
The depth of the linebackers is even further affected by the recent retirement of defensive end Rob Ninkovich. As a projected starter for the defense, Ninkovich’s retirement leaves a hole.
During training camp, Belichick commented on McClellan’s possible role in filling that hole. Belichick said that “Shea’s really been good, he had a lot of experience before he got here of playing on the line in college and for a year in Chicago… So, he’s worked very hard to play with those different techniques and have versatility for us playing on the end of the line…”
These comments coupled with McClellan’s increased roll in pass rushing drills and in the defensive end position during training camp point towards McClellan potentially making the shift to defensive end. Should this happen, the linebacking depth would be even further depleted only increasing the importance of Harris’ addition.
Harris’ addition also offers insurance in the case of an injury to Hightower. In four of his five seasons in the NFL, Hightower has battled injury and failed to play all 16 games. Hightower is the leader of that defense and the signal caller for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
Harris held the same responsibility for Jets head coach Todd Bowles in 2016. Harris played 87 percent of the defensive snaps. In addition, he has played in 137 of the past 138 games for the Jets. Included in that stretch was a 121 game start streak until he missed a game last season.
Losing Ninkovich also leaves the pass rush with an even bigger gap than before. The signing of Harris, a true middle linebacker, will allow for Hightower to move back outside more often. Hightower is one of the better pure pass rushers on the New England roster. He is by-far the best from the outside linebacker position. Harris taking up the middle linebacker position will allow Hightower to play more outside linebacker. Freeing him up to get after the passer more often.
Signing Harris provided the Patriots the necessary depth at the linebacker position. Allowing for someone like Shea McClellin to take snaps at defensive end. This should help fill the hole left by the retirement of Ninkovich. With Hightower’s long history of injuries and inability to play a full 16 game season, Harris provides insurance for arguably the Patriots most important defensive player.
Harris, while not the biggest name added to the Patriots roster this offseason, is arguably the most important and impactful of the group.