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Patriots assess NFL draft options at linebacker after departures in free agency

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Goodell to relay draft picks from his basement (2:14)

Jeremy Fowler explains the precautions and procedures that the NFL has decided to take in order to hold a functional NFL draft. (2:14)

Make a connection with a prospect eligible for the 2020 NFL draft, or those close to them, and a familiar pattern emerges: They've probably had recent conversations with New England Patriots coaches.

Coach Bill Belichick has his staff working hard in a pre-draft process that is unlike any they have experienced due to the coronavirus pandemic.

One example is Purdue linebacker Markus Bailey. The Patriots have a notable need at the position after Jamie Collins (Detroit Lions), Kyle Van Noy (Miami Dolphins) and Elandon Roberts (Dolphins) departed in free agency, so it's no surprise league sources relay that Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has had FaceTime meetings with Bailey in recent weeks.

Bailey, a two-time captain, is a projected mid-round pick who missed 10 games in his final season at Purdue because of a knee injury. Mayo would normally be visiting him on campus, or attending his pro day, to update the Patriots' scouting files and provide a coach-specific perspective. Instead, it's done via video conferencing.

Mayo's contact with Bailey highlights how the Patriots' staff has adjusted its scouting process, in addition to how the Patriots' front seven is in need of reinforcements after more free-agent departures than additions. The strength of the Patriots' defense seems to be its secondary, but as Devin and Jason McCourty said in their "Double Coverage" podcast on Sunday night, solid play up front is any defensive back's ideal scenario.

"Every defensive back loves a great pass-rusher," Devin said.

"If you can get a big man up there that can get after the quarterback, it makes life a little bit easier," Jason added.

Who will do that for the Patriots in 2020?

Big shoes to fill

Collins led the team with seven sacks last season, as well as 80 tackles. His speed and athleticism was valuable, primarily in an off-the-line role.

Van Noy, who was a consistent presence as an on-the-line edge defender playing 81% of the snaps, was second with 6.5 sacks. He tied Collins for the team lead with three forced fumbles.

Roberts was called on in a niche role in run-specific packages, with his physical style of play bringing an edge to the unit. He could also be effective on linebacker blitzes.

In addition to the linebackers, starting defensive tackle Danny Shelton -- now with the Lions -- also had a notable impact. His 61 tackles were tied for third on the team, to go along with three sacks.

Add it all up, and that's significant production to replace in the front seven, which can be broken down into three categories in the Patriots' ever-evolving, multiple scheme:

Big-bodied DTs: Lawrence Guy, Beau Allen, Byron Cowart, Nick Thurman

Defensive end/outside linebackers: John Simon, Chase Winovich, Deatrich Wise Jr., Derek Rivers, Shilique Calhoun, Brandon Copeland, Keionta Davis, Tashawn Bower

Inside linebackers: Dont'a Hightower, Ja'Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall

Draft possibilities

The lack of depth at inside linebacker -- where Collins and Roberts filled out a strong depth chart in 2019 -- stands out. A player like Purdue's Bailey could fit well, especially when considering he would likely factor into the special-teams mix.

Also, Hightower (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) and Bentley (6-2, 255) are bigger, more rugged linebackers, with Bailey (6-0, 235) a possible nice contrast in playing style -- more fluid in coverage -- if he's available in the late third-round range.

If the Patriots consider going with an off-the-line linebacker who fits a similar profile in the first round (they own the No. 23 overall pick), LSU's Patrick Queen (6-0, 229) and Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray (6-2, 241) could be options.

Wisconsin's Zack Baun (6-2, 238) is part of the next tier at the position, and Football Outsiders drew comparisons to Van Noy with his potential scheme fit (versatility to possibly play on the line and off the line). Texas Tech's Jordyn Brooks (6-0, 240), Ohio State's Malik Harrison (6-2, 247) and Wyoming's Logan Wilson (6-2, 241) are also part of the off-the-line linebacker mix that could appeal to New England on Day 2 of the draft.

The Patriots will be looking for Allen -- a free-agent signee from the Buccaneers -- to fill Shelton's No. 2 void on the big-bodied DT depth chart. And it would be ideal if Cowart, the 2019 fifth-round pick from Maryland whose power was viewed as a top asset coming out of last year's draft, can elevate as a productive third option.

Still, if a promising rookie is viewed as good value this year, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Patriots take the plunge with No. 1 man Guy entering the final year of his contract.

At the outside linebacker/edge group, there are high hopes for Winovich, the 2019 third-round pick from Michigan who totaled 5.5 sacks as a rookie. The depth chart is full, but what is its overall level of quality?

That is one of several intriguing questions as the Patriots consider possibilities to bolster their defensive front.