In need of linebacker, Patriots could be in solid position in draft

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- What might the New England Patriots be looking for at the off-the-line linebacker position in the 2018 NFL draft?

Need rating: Second

Current personnel: Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers, Nicholas Grigsby, Harvey Langi (hybrid edge)

What's missing? A developmental three-down linebacker who runs well enough to cover running backs out of the backfield but is tough enough to play downhill and defend the run, and thus could play in all packages (similar to Jerod Mayo, selected with the No. 10 overall pick in 2008). The Patriots have pieced things together with their current personnel, with one example being how they have combined Roberts (early downs as run stuffer) with Flowers (speed in sub packages) to essentially form one player.

2018 draft class primer: Strong year. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock made the point that, on average, there are usually two off-the-line linebackers selected in the first round, but this year there could be four.

Five who fit for the Patriots: Rashaan Evans (Alabama), Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State), Christian Sam (Arizona State), Josey Jewell (Iowa), Oren Burks (Vanderbilt).

Key stat: Hightower is a difference-maker when healthy, but the Patriots have managed his workload at times in hopes of preserving him for the long haul. So combining that with injuries, his playing-time percentages have been 76.7 (2014), 54.2 (2015), 67.9 (2016) and 22.3 (2017) over the past four years.

My take: This will be one of the primary things I'll be watching for in the first round of the draft. The top two off-the-line linebackers (Georgia's Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds) are expected to be long gone by the time the Patriots are scheduled to pick at No. 23, but it's possible that the next projected wave of prospects at the position (Evans and Vander Esch) will be in range. One of the reasons the Patriots might have brought Evans to town for a pre-draft visit was to get a final medical check on his groin, which has slowed him at times each of the past two seasons. Evans and Vander Esch were both really just one-year starters in college, and it's possible that has an impact on the Patriots' evaluation/grade. If the Patriots are looking at a left tackle prospect vs. an athletic off-the-line linebacker with their top pick, that might be a tough call. The left-tackle class isn't considered as deep as the off-the-line linebacker class, and that might be a factor to consider if the players have similar grades.