2017 Patriots Training Camp Position Battles: Outside Linebacker

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 07: Defensive end Rob Ninkovich
SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 07: Defensive end Rob Ninkovich /

The New England Patriots will have a stout defense in 2017. Today we take a look at the position battle that exists for the outside linebackers.

On the outside, the New England Patriots know that Dont’a Hightower will be a starter for them, but there seems to be an open competition for the second starting role as an outside linebacker.

This is part 4 of a 5 part series previewing the top position battles as we head into Patriots training camp. You can view my No. 3 wide receiver, No. 3 cornerback, and defensive end previews before the running backs preview is published on Tuesday.

Veterans Rob Ninkovich, Shea McClellin, and Jonathan Freeny will be joined by a number of rookies, but I think Harvey Langi (naturally a middle linebacker) will give them the best run. Nink is aging, and though he’s on the back side of his career, he still can be productive when utilized properly. McClellin played well in his first season in Foxboro, and Freeny was a pleasant surprise on the field. The Patriots clearly believe in Langi’s abilities, because they paid the undrafted free agent like a regular middle-round draft pick.

Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick surely have a large talent pool to pull from here, but only one man can claim the job as a starter. Without further ado, here’s my breakdown of the four players I believe are in contention for a starting outside linebacker job.

Rob Ninkovich

2016 Regular Season: 12 Games, 17 Tackles, 4.0 Sacks, 2 Passes Defended, 2 Forced Fumbles

2016 Playoffs: 3 Games, 2 Tackles, 1 Sack, 1 Pass Defended, 1 Fumble Recovery

Rob Ninkovich may be trending downwards as his career winds down, but he’s still an extremely intelligent football player and he makes the right plays when he’s on the field. In fewer games last season, Nink played better statistically than Shea McClellin. That should continue in 2017.

Though in the past we could expect 8 sacks a year from Ninkovich, I think 4 or 5 is fair now. He may have lost a step but he’s still a great player to have on the Patriots roster. Another part of what makes him great is his self-awareness. Nink knows his career is winding down, so he wants to help the younger players develop and become even better.

"“You try to help the younger guys because they remember that,” Ninkovich said. “When I was younger, the guys that helped you, you appreciated, as opposed to the guys worrying about you taking their job. It’s silly. I know my job is going to be taken. I understand that. I don’t lose sleep over it because I’ve had such a successful career.”"

While younger edge players may eventually replace Ninkovich, in 2017 I still believe he has a role to play for the New England Patriots defense.

Shea McClellin

2016 Regular Season: 14 Games, 16 Tackles, 1.0 Sack, 2 Fumble Recoveries

2016 Playoffs: 3 Games, 2 Tackles

Shea McClellin is a virtual lock to make the Patriots roster thanks to his abilities both as a linebacker and on special teams. A full season in New England and another offseason here should have Shea primed for an even better 2017.

McClellin will certainly be in the OLB/EDGE rotation all year long, it’s just a matter of where he falls on that depth chart. For now, I think he would need an extremely impressive training camp to become the starter alongside Dont’a Hightower.

Jonathan Freeny

2016 Regular Season: 5 Games, 6 Tackles, 1 Forced Fumble

2016 Playoffs: 2 Games, 1 Fumble Recovery

Jonathan Freeny didn’t see much time on the field last season, but it always seemed like he made the most of his opportunities. He spent time on the IR last season, but now he seems to be back and completely healthy.

I believe without question that Freeny will land on the Patriots week 1 roster. He is extremely talented and he hustles on every play. New England will likely have to go six-deep at linebacker for him to make it though. Right now there are plenty of guys ahead of Freeny, but a strong training camp can go a long way to reshuffling the depth chart.

Harvey Langi

2016 College: 13 Games, 31 Tackles, 2.0 Sacks, 2 Passes Defended, 1 Forced Fumble

Sadly, I think Harvey Langi is left out to begin the year. He will be placed on the practice squad, and he’s a guy that I think will see some regular season action in 2017. The Patriots are just too deep at linebacker this season, especially with the addition of David Harris.

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My pick to start at outside linebacker

Once again, I believe that Rob Ninkovich will steal the starting role, but I do think 2017 will be his last season in that role. Nink is slowing down, but his abilities are still superior to those mentioned above.

McClellin could surpass Ninkovich as the starter if he improves his pass rush, but I don’t see that happening to begin the season.

Freeny will likely make the squad as I said, but if New England doesn’t want to go six-deep his spot is in jeopardy with the talent that’s ahead of him.

Next: Patriots Training Camp Battles: No. 3 Cornerback

Do you agree or disagree that Ninkovich is still the best option? Let me know on Twitter @CandCFanSided or @JakChowder. I welcome all debate on this topic!