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positional analysis: linebacker

Even without Matthew Judon, linebacker was a position of strength for Patriots

Matthew Judon played just four games in 2023 before being shelved with an elbow injury.Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

It’s a good time to be a linebacker in New England.

Former linebacker Jerod Mayo was just named the head coach. Dont’a Hightower was just named an assistant. And the position group as a whole exceeded expectations over the second half of the 2023 season after Matthew Judon was lost in October with a season-ending elbow injury.

It was a competitive group that did more than its share. Jahlani Tavai was a steady sideline-to-sideline presence; only one player on the roster had more solo tackles. After part-time duty the last couple of years, Anfernee Jennings and Mack Wilson Sr. asserted themselves as the year went on, and proved to be every-down defenders. Ja’Whaun Bentley held up well in the middle, Josh Uche provided complementary support when it came to the pass rush, and youngster Marte Mapu gained valuable experience.

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And now, with Mayo as the head coach and Hightower as the inside linebackers coach, they are more eager for the 2024 season than any other positional group.

There are some immediate in-house free agent questions, namely Uche, Jennings, and Wilson. Given his pass-rush production prior to 2023, Uche could be in line for a fair payday on the open market. At the same time, he was one of the most enthusiastic players at Mayo’s introductory press conference.

Jennings and Wilson had very good years as complementary players who had more put on their plate following injury, and while they will get moderate free agent offers, their faith in Mayo (as well as Hightower) could factor into their decisions.

Regardless of what happens with the personnel decisions, the return of Judon undeniably will provide a boost, particularly when he’s reuniting with Drew Wilkins, a coach he worked with in Baltimore who was just named the Patriots outside linebackers coach. Judon’s return, combined with the ascension of Mayo (and Hightower), should only heighten the anticipation as to what might be in store for New England’s linebackers.

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Currently on the roster: Ja’Whaun Bentley (4.5 sacks, 55 solo tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits), Chris Board, Christian Ellis, Anfernee Jennings (50 solo tackles, 14 tackles for loss), Matthew Judon (four sacks, five tackles for loss, nine quarterback hits in four games), Marte Mapu (12 solo tackles), Raekwon McMillan, Jahlani Tavai (65 solo tackles, five tackles for loss, five passes defensed), Josh Uche (three sacks, six quarterback hits), Mack Wilson Sr. (3.5 sacks, 24 solo tackles), Joe Giles-Harris (practice squad)

Notable free agents (pending franchise tag assignments)

Given the depth at the position, it would be a surprise if the Patriots invested heavily in outside possibilities, instead angling to keep their own guys. But one who could draw their attention is Bobby Wagner, not so much for his on-field production but his leadership.

The 33-year-old Wagner is one of the most respected players in the league, and signing him would be a terrific indication that in the new era of New England football, character and leadership will count as much as on-field numbers. The Patriots probably would have to overpay a bit, but the chance to bring in a guy like Wagner at such a critical time would be a bold move for a team that could use as many individuals like him as possible.

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Bobby Wagner has played 11 seasons with the Seahawks and one with the Rams.Andy Lyons/Getty

Tier One: Lavonte David (4.5 sacks, 5 passes defensed, 86 solo tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits), Patrick Queen (3.5 sacks, 84 solo tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 6 quarterback hits), Frankie Luvu (5.5 sacks, 5 passes defensed, 66 solo tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits)

Tier Two: Uche, Wilson Sr., Jennings, Wagner (3.5 sacks, 96 solo tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 6 quarterback hits), Jordyn Brooks (4.5 sacks, 62 solo tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits), Devin White (2.5 sacks, 49 solo tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 9 quarterback hits)

Tier Three: Josey Jewell (3 sacks, 60 solo tackles), Drue Tranquill (4.5 sacks, 54 solo tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 7 quarterback hits)

Draft possibilities

Again, this is not an immediate position of need, but given the fact that there are some free agent questions, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England take a look at some linebacking options on Day 2 and Day 3.

Day One: Dallas Turner (Alabama), Jeremiah Trotter (Clemson), Jared Verse (Florida State), Laiatu Latu (UCLA), Chris Braswell (Alabama)

Day Two: Bralen Trice (Washington), Edgerrin Cooper (Texas A&M), Jonah Ellis (Utah), Chop Robinson (Penn State), Gabriel Murphy (UCLA)

Positional previews


Christopher Price can be reached at christopher.price@globe.com. Follow him @cpriceglobe.