David Harris signing could impact roles of other Patriots linebackers

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots will hold their first public training camp practice on July 27. As part of the lead-up to camp, I'll spotlight one position each weekday to highlight the team's personnel and some of the storylines of note.

We've covered wide receivers, offensive linemen, running backs, tight ends and quarterbacks last week, so let's move on to the defense and start with a focus on the linebackers.

Personnel:Dont'a Hightower, David Harris, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Jonathan Freeny, Trevor Bates, Harvey Langi, Brooks Ellis

Roster locks: Hightower, Harris

Harris signing alters the dynamic. Hightower is a three-down linebacker, although the Patriots sometimes keep him on the sideline with the idea of full-season preservation in mind. Perhaps that is what led the Patriots to sign Harris, the former Jet, to a two-year contract that included a $1.25 million signing bonus. Harris, 33, might not be the fastest linebacker, but his instincts and intelligence should help him carve out a role in the team’s linebacker rotation.

Health report: Hightower didn’t participate in spring practices for unknown reasons, but the sense is that it isn’t any reason for long-term concern. Freeny, a special teamer whose roster spot could be in jeopardy after the addition of Harris, is coming back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the entire 2016 season.

Piecing it together with Roberts, McClellin and Van Noy. Last season, the Patriots essentially utilized the strengths of Roberts (2016 sixth-round pick), McClellin (free-agent signing) and Van Noy (acquired in a trade) as if they were one player. Roberts showed a knack for playing downhill in the running game and as a blitzer, although one wonders if what appeared to be a coverage bust in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl (39-yard Devonta Freeman reception) affected the coaching staff’s analysis. McClellin moves a bit better laterally, while Van Noy was an effective pass-rusher who sometimes was asked to cover running backs down the field on wheel routes. Do they all stick in 2017? And if so, can any of them expand their roles?

Rookie report. Langi and Ellis were signed as undrafted free agents, with Langi receiving $115,000 in guaranteed money. That was the highest total of any undrafted player in the NFL. While not a rookie, Bates, who starred at the University of Maine before being selected in the seventh round of 2016 draft, is a solid developmental prospect.

Stat check: Hightower’s playing-time percentage over the last three seasons: 76.7, 54.2 and 67.9.

Quote of note: “I have a lot of respect for David Harris. That guy is, first of all, he never comes of the field -- not [just] this year, but any year. The guy is like a 98, 99 percent playtime player for them every year, year after year. It's obviously as defense that has a lot of communication and adjustments and he's certainly at the center of that, both as the signal caller and then at the line of scrimmage you can see him adjusting the front or making some type of communication calls to his teammates." -- Bill Belichick, 2015