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Patriots May Have A Completely Revamped Linebacking Corps In 2022

FOXBORO (CBS) -- The Patriots moved on from Kyle Van Noy on Monday, a move that will give New England some added cap space this offseason. But it also subtracts one of the more versatile players from the defense, and is likely just the beginning of a complete makeover at linebacker.

Given the uncertainty surrounding three other big hitters at the position, with Dont'a Hightower, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins all set to become unrestricted free agents next week, the Patriots could have a whole new look in the middle of their defense in 2022. The team has said it wants to get younger and faster at the position, and the need to do so was very evident during New England's embarrassing playoff loss to the Bills in January. So this offseason could be all about an "out with the old, in with the new" approach.

The Patriots may have opened a little cap space in moving on from Van Noy, but they now have a large hole to fill on the defense. Van Noy played 81 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2021, and more than half of his snaps were as New England's other edge guy across from Matt Judon. Van Noy logged five sacks, seven QB hits and a pair of forced fumbles in 2021.

Judon will be the team's primary quarterback-seeking missile again, but there is no clear-cut replacement for Van Noy on the roster. And after watching Judon tail off at the end of the 2021 season, it would be in the Patriots' best interest to get someone to draw some more attention on the other side of the edge.

Luckily for New England, this year's draft class is full of play-making linebackers and edge rushers. If a team wants to completely revamp its collection of inside and outside linebackers, this is a great year to do it.

The Patriots have a decent crop of young linebackers already on the roster in early-round picks Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings (both drafted in 2020) and Ronnie Perkins (third-round pick, 96th overall in 2021). Cameron McGrone and Raekwon McMillan are also in the mix as they work their way back from torn ACLs that sidelined them for the 2021 season.

But there is no guarantee that any of those players will make a massive impact in 2022. Jennings appears to be the most likely to take over Van Noy's role, playing the edge and off the line as a rookie in 2020, but he spent all of last season on Injured Reserve. He lost some valuable experience, and now we don't really know what the Patriots have in the former third-round pick.

Uche was highly touted coming out of Michigan in 2020, but he's started just one game over the last two seasons. He played in 12 games in 2021, registering three sacks and four QB hits as he played 30 percent of the team's defensive snaps. Perkins, meanwhile, played in zero games as a "red shirt" rookie last season.

Chase Winovich could maybe make an impact as a situational pass rusher, but he has to get out of Bill Belichick's dog house first. He started nine games in 2020, but none last season, serving only as a role player on defense. The majority of his playing time came on special teams.

The team would probably love to have Hightower, a longtime captain and once playmaker extraordinaire, back in the fold in 2022. If the team is going to go young at the position, Hightower is the kind of voice you want leading the group. But he will turn 32 before he hits free agency and is on the back nine of his career, so it will all come down to money and whether he's willing to take a team-friendly deal. He isn't the impact player that he once was, but could still serve an important (albeit decreased) role on the defense.

Bentley's case is an interesting one, as he started all 29 of his appearances over the last two seasons. He was the team's leader in the middle in 2020 when Hightower sat out the pandemic season, and will now likely command a pretty big salary in free agency. He'll likely be priced out of the cap-strapped Patriots' reach.

After a spending spree last offseason, this spring is going to be a lot different for the Patriots. They'll mostly be subtracting salary instead of adding it, while looking to plug some important holes on the defense, likely through the draft and the bargain bin. Van Noy's release on Monday was likely just the start of an offseason of change in New England.

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