Patriots can find linebacker depth in this draft

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Peyton Manning No.18 of the Denver Broncos (right) and head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots speak after the AFC Championship game on January 24, in Denver, Colorado. AFP file photo

Peyton Manning No.18 of the Denver Broncos (right) and head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots speak after the AFC Championship game on January 24, in Denver, Colorado. AFP file photo

Bill Belichick should operate like a doomsday prepper while assessing this draft’s linebackers.

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No, the Patriots don’t need a frontline linebacker, and if everything goes according to plan, they won’t need one for several years. But until they reach contract extensions with Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Pats must be mindful of a worst-case scenario.

In any event, Belichick has never been shy about overstocking the linebacker depth chart. He drafted Jerod Mayo (2008), Brandon Spikes (2010), Hightower (2012) and Collins (2013) with early-round picks despite lack of immediate need.

The Pats already beefed up the corps by signing free agent Shea McClellin.

The draft’s greatest wild card is Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith, who tore his ACL in January and may have nerve damage. The injury turned a potential No.?1 overall pick into an unknown, as he probably won’t play in 2016 and could be a shell of himself if the nerves don’t regenerate.

“If he did not get hurt, he’d be in the conversation for the first pick in the draft,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “He’s as exciting a linebacker prospect as I’ve seen since (Boston College’s) Luke Kuechly as far as an inside, off-the-ball linebacker.”

The Pats aren’t in range to land the stud prospects — UCLA’s Myles Jack, Ohio State’s Darron Lee or Alabama’s Reggie Ragland — but there is a second wave of talent available in the second and third rounds.

Missouri’s Kentrell Brothers (6-foot, 245 pounds) is undersized for a Belichick linebacker, but he is a Lavonte David type in that he makes a ton of plays. While Brothers appears to be the best fit, LSU’s Deion Jones would be a nice get with either the No.?60 pick or the No.?61 pick.

If the Patriots miss out on Brothers or Jones, they might use a third-rounder or perhaps move into the fourth for someone like Oklahoma’s Eric Striker or Arizona’s Scooby Wright. Striker is aptly named, and he is also versatile enough to be a sub linebacker in coverage or rush situations. He’ll take time to develop, though.

“Eric Striker had great production at Oklahoma,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said. “He’s fast off the edge, but he’s so light that you’ll see at times an offensive tackle just put an arm on him and that will be the end of that.”

Belichick probably can’t get his prototypical linebacker with their allotted draft picks, but he can absolutely improve the roster with the prospects in this class. It’s more important than anything to extend Hightower and Collins, but even that shouldn’t prohibit the Patriots from adding a linebacker this week.

TNS

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