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patriots' positional report: linebacker

Patriots took some hits at the linebacker position this offseason

More is likely to be expected out of third-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley in 2020.
More is likely to be expected out of third-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley in 2020.Nick Wass/Associated Press

New England’s linebacking corps was one scary bunch in 2019.

The cast for “Boogeymen II,” however, is going to look significantly different.

The Patriots lost leading men Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts to free agency. The good news is the biggest star of the bunch, Dont’a Hightower, is back for a ninth season in Foxborough.

Hightower’s penchant for big plays at big moments — he’s affectionately known as “Mr. February" — and his leadership in the locker room will be needed this season as he helps to mold an overhauled crew of linebackers.

Versatility has long been the quality most valued in New England, and that’s especially true at the second level of the defense. It doesn’t matter if you’re listed as an inside guy or an outside guy, this staff expects players to rush the quarterback, defend the run, and drop into coverage depending on the look.

Few have epitomized that flexibility better than the 6-foot-3-inch, 260-pound Hightower, who is signed through this season, on the books for $8 million.

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Here’s a look at the rest of the candidates looking for their shot at starring and/or supporting roles in New England’s linebacking group:

JA’WHAUN BENTLEY

Contract status: Signed through 2021.

Base salary for 2020: $750,000.

Comment: Bentley is a thick, tenacious thumper who gets downhill quickly and makes his hits count. The 6-2, 255-pounder has heavy hands and can shock blockers with his power.

He made big strides last season after his rookie campaign was cut short (torn biceps) following an impressive start. A born leader (he was the first three-time captain in Purdue history), he’ll be counted on to step up and help guide this group.

CHASE WINOVICH

Contract status: Signed through 2022.

Base salary for 2020: $681,000.

Chase Winovich had 5.5 sacks as a rookie.
Chase Winovich had 5.5 sacks as a rookie.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Comment: What’s not to love about this 6-3, 250-pound wild man? Winovich had the biggest impact of the 2019 rookie class, excelling as a sub package pass rusher and on special teams. His role and responsibilities surely will expand this season.

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Winovich plays every snap as if his hair is on fire and has the requisite burst and hand strength to disengage from blockers and get his nose in on tons of plays.

BRANDON COPELAND

Contract status: Signed through 2020.

Base salary for 2020: $910,000.

Brandon Copeland was an undrafted free agent out of the Ivy League.
Brandon Copeland was an undrafted free agent out of the Ivy League.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Comment: A smart and versatile player who really started to gain steam with the Jets over the last two seasons after short stints in the Ravens, Lions, and Titans organizations.

An undrafted Ivy Leaguer (Penn), this 6-3, 263-pounder diagnoses plays quickly and has a speedy first step to the ball. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he develops into a three-down player in New England’s scheme.

SHILIQUE CALHOUN

Contract status: Signed through 2020.

Base salary for 2020: $1 million.

Shilique Calhoun (90) has been in the league for four seasons.
Shilique Calhoun (90) has been in the league for four seasons.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Comment: Was somewhat buried on the depth chart in 2019 with more experienced players ahead of him. That the staff wanted the 6-4, 260-pounder back is a testament to his work ethic and how they see him contributing going forward.

An outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid, Calhoun possesses above-average athleticism and quickness and was a key special teams contributor. He’ll be given ample opportunity to expand his roles this summer.

DEREK RIVERS

Contract status: Signed through 2020.

Base salary for 2020: $735,000.

Derek Rivers spent last year on the sidelines.
Derek Rivers spent last year on the sidelines.Steven Senne

Comment: This is a big year for the 2017 third-rounder, who missed his second professional season because of injury in 2019. Another OLB/DE hybrid, Rivers is athletic and has a nice burst off the snap.

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The 6-5, 250-pounder has gained muscle and power and will need to continue to do so to crack this lineup. Consistently got under blockers’ pads and to the quarterback in college (41 sacks, 47 QB pressures) and will need to get back to that style to be effective at this level.

TASHAWN BOWER

Contract status: Signed through 2020.

Base salary for 2020: $750,000.

Comment: Yet another hybrid, this 6-5, 250-pounder could be a real diamond in the rough. Bower has excellent length and good foot speed, suggesting he could be used in multiple roles. Has the burst to attack off the edge and with some extra muscle; could shift inside and be effective there as well.

TEREZ HALL

Contract status: Signed through 2020.

Base salary for 2020: $610,000.

Comment: Spent 2019 on the practice squad, which should give him a leg up on new candidates. Was a violent hitter during his four seasons at Missouri, where his overaggressive play sometimes cost him. Likely has learned to play with more discipline over the last year; this 6-2, 235-pounder will be a player to watch come July.


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.