“A guy that can play on every single down. A difference-maker.”

Bill Belichick and the Patriots will have multiple needs to address in the NFL Draft. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Former Patriot Rodney Harrison believes his old team has one clear need to address in this spring’s NFL Draft.

Harrison, appearing on WEEI’s “Merloni and Fauria,” said the Patriots should select a linebacker in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

“I just need a young, fast, athletic linebacker that’s an excellent playmaker that can run sideline to sideline,” Harrison said. “A guy that can play on every single down. A difference-maker. A guy that can blitz. A guy that can drop into coverage.

“You can find that guy in the first and second rounds. But definitely [draft a player] on the defensive side of the ball.”


The Patriots’ need to improve at linebacker was apparent in their 47-17 playoff loss to the Bills, in which they allowed 174 rushing yards on six yards per carry. That game was just the tip of the iceberg for the Patriots’ rush defense woes toward the end of the season. They allowed 791 rushing yards on 5.2 yards per carry over the last five games. For reference, the Steelers had the worst yards per carry against in 2021, giving up five yards per carry during the regular season.

In addition to poor play down the stretch from its linebackers, New England might lose its two top inside linebackers with Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley set to become free agents. Even if they keep Hightower, who’s played with the Patriots since they drafted him in 2012, it might not be a bad idea to add someone younger to the linebacker corps. The soon-to-be 32-year-old recorded just one tackle for loss and quarterbacks completed 90.3 percent of their passes for 238 yards with Hightower in coverage in 2021.

With that in mind, Harrison is far from the first person to suggest the Patriots need to go younger at linebacker this offseason. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has the Patriots drafting Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean in the first round of his mock draft.


“Generally, Bill Belichick prefers bigger-bodied linebackers, but what Dean lacks in size he more than makes up for with play speed and football smarts,” Brugler wrote. “And anyone who watched the Patriots’ playoff loss to the Bills knows they need more of both at linebacker.”

Dean (6-feet, 225 pounds) is definitely smaller than Hightower (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) and Bentley (6-foot-2, 256 pounds), along with linebackers Belichick’s used high picks on in the past such as Jerod Mayo (6-foot-1, 250 pounds) and Jamie Collins (6-foot-3, 250 pounds). His unofficial 4.52 40-yard dash though is quicker than all the aforementioned players ran before they were drafted by the Patriots.

Dean was a focal point of Georgia’s historically good defense, and his speed helped him record 72 combined tackles (10.5 for loss), six sacks, and two interceptions en route to earning a first-team All-American nod.

NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks also has the Patriots selecting a linebacker in the first round, projecting them to select Utah’s Devin Lloyd with the No. 21 overall pick.

“The Patriots need an infusion of speed, athleticism and explosiveness at linebacker,” Brooks wrote. “The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is a bit of a Swiss Army knife at the position with the capacity to play in space or create disruption on blitzes.”


Lloyd’s height (6-foot-3) certainly meets the unofficial criteria the Patriots have had when selecting linebackers in the past and while he weighs 232 pounds now, he can always bulk up once he gets into the league.

Lloyd was a tackling machine this past season, recording 111 combined tackles (22 for loss) to go along with seven sacks, four interceptions, and a forced fumble.

Besides linebacker, the other issue Harrison believes the Patriots need to resolve is to get a top receiver for Mac Jones to throw to.

“It’s very important,” Harrison said. “You think about Nelson Agholor and those guys, I thought he was going to have more of an impact. I thought Jonnu Smith was going to have more of an impact. But you can’t always go out and find those guys in free agency.

“Sometimes, you have to go out and go draft a guy to see if you can have that impact player. It’d be nice to see if Hunter Henry continues to stay healthy and get better. Obviously, they’re going to have to go out and find some receivers and playmakers.”