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patriots positional analysis | linebacker

Linebacker is looking like a position of strength for Patriots

In his second season as a Patriot, Jahlani Tavai started 12 of the final 13 games, finishing with 63 tackles and 1.5 sacks.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Jahlani Tavai was not interested in looking back.

Fresh off his fourth NFL season (and second with the Patriots), the versatile linebacker, who has developed into a foundational piece on one of the league’s top defenses, wasn’t in the mood to rehash the season-ending loss to the Bills.

“I’m just looking forward to spending my last few hours with my guys,” Tavai said as teammates cleared out their lockers the day after the season. “It’s going to be a different team next year. I’m just going to enjoy my last time with these guys and this team. That’s all I can do. I can’t really dwell on the game right now because it is what it is. Just got to move on.”

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Moving on was easy for Tavai, who arrived in Foxborough on the cusp of the 2021 season after being released by the Lions at the end of training camp.

After a short stint on the practice squad, Tavai became a core special teamer and eased into the linebacker rotation.

Tavai really began to flourish this season, starting 12 of the final 13 games, finishing with 63 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a pair of passes defensed. He also remained a valuable special teams contributor, with six tackles.

Tavai’s rise in New England’s system led the club to extend him for two more seasons.

“I think Jahlani has a few things going for him,” said Bill Belichick, who had tracked Tavai during the draft process and worked him out on the West Coast. “One, he’s a pretty smart kid and he’s played both inside and outside in college [at Hawaii] and then with Matt [Patricia] in Detroit. So when we got him last year, he had a lot of familiarity with our system, and a lot of techniques and things that we did and so forth.

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“But just overall, he kind of has that skill set that he can play on the end of the line, play off the line, has some pass-rush ability, plays on all four phases of the kicking game.”

Tavai is part of a brigade of four linebackers who had excellent seasons and are set to return, including Ja’Whaun Bentley (122 tackles), Matthew Judon (15.5 sacks), and Josh Uche (11.5 sacks).

An old-school thumper, Bentley is the unquestioned leader of the room. Teammates point to his elite communications skills and no-nonsense playing style as his hallmarks.

The Bentley-Judon combination was a key part of the New England defense in 2022.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Judon is a relentless pass rusher, and Uche’s quick first step often leaves blockers flat-footed and defenseless.

Raekwon McMillan provided important depth and some big plays, while Mack Wilson’s role diminished significantly down the stretch. Both are unrestricted free agents.

Anfernee Jennings has one more year left on his rookie deal and, similar to McMillan, flashed at times. He is stout on the edge, and it will be interesting to see if his role increases in 2023.

Some names to keep in mind for the offseason: Ronnie Perkins, Calvin Munson, and Terez Hall.

Perkins has yet to make his pro debut after two seasons marked by injuries. He played 33 games at Oklahoma, where he was a thorn in quarterbacks’ sides, registering 16.5 sacks and 19 hurries. This will be an important spring and summer for Perkins to see if he can find a role in New England’s schemes.

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Munson and Hall signed futures contracts and will be among those competing for attention this summer.

Top free linebackers: David Long (Titans), T.J. Edwards, (Eagles), Drue Tranquill (Chargers), Bobby Okereke (Colts), Leighton Vander Esch (Cowboys).

Top draftable linebackers: Trenton Simpson (Clemson), Noah Sewell (Oregon), Henry To’oTo’o (Alabama), DeMarvion Overshown (Texas), Mohamoud Diabate (Utah).


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