As the NFL offseason hits mid-May, a number of marquee free agents remain unsigned. While Cam Newton has received a lot of buzz in New England as someone who could mentor a young up-and-comer at his position already on the Patriots roster, there’s another, more realistic option for the Patriots out there who could do some mentoring of his own.
After being cut by the Rams on March 19th, linebacker Clay Matthews remains without a home and the Patriots could be a perfect fit. Certainly imparting some wisdom from his years in the NFL to a young Chase Winovich is part of the intrigue, but Matthews can be more than just a mentor. While Matthews is entering the twilight of his career, he’s far from a shell of his former self. He put up 8 sacks to go along with 2 forced fumbles and 3 pass deflections in 2019. Having lost Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Jamie Collins this past offseason, the Patriots could still use some help at linebacker and Matthews certainly fits the bill.
New England did address their need at linebacker in the draft by selecting Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, respectively, but rookies usually don’t play major roles for New England. Just ask JoeJuan Williams and Chase Winovich. Winovich played just 28.87% of the defensive snaps in 2019 and Williams played less than 10%. The last time the Patriots had a rookie play more than 55% of their defensive snaps was defensive linemen Joe Vellano and Chris Jones (not that Chris Jones) in 2013. That year, their defense ranked 28th in the league in opponent yards per game. Since then, rookies usually take a pseudo redshirt year in New England before they see any serious playing time. If the Patriots plan to take a similar approach with Uche and Jennings, there’s a lot of snaps left to go around at linebacker.
As someone quite fond of practicing a bit of nepotism every once in a while, Bill Belichick may have another reason to bring Matthews to New England. Back in his years with the Browns, Belichick coached Clay Matthews Jr., the father of the current free agent linebacker. Belichick once placed the elder Matthews’ alongside Junior Seau when talking about linebackers who played well late in their careers. “[Seau], Clay Matthews [Jr.], guys to play as long as they did at that position as well as he did is phenomenal.” Belichick may like the idea of bringing in the son of one of his former players whom he held in such high regard.
By all accounts, Belichick has a similar admiration for the younger Matthews. Belichick had this to say prior to a matchup with Matthews’ Packers in 2018: “Clay’s been one of their impact players defensively for quite a while… He’s got very good instincts. He’s a hard guy to fool with screens and misdirection plays, things like that. He reads those well. He’s a good tackler. He’s long. He’s got good playing strength. Yeah, he does a lot of things well.”
Winovich has also expressed his deep admiration for the former All-Pro linebacker. “Clay’s the background on my phone,” Winovich said back in 2018 while at Michigan. Winovich has been compared to Matthews both in terms of play style and hair style. A year of picking the brain of one of the best linebackers of the 2010s could do wonders for Winovich’s development as a dynamic edge rusher, but it’s not just Winovich who could benefit from having Matthews as a mentor. Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche are two versatile outside linebackers in their own right who could also be brought under Matthews wing for a year of tutelage.
Need, fit, mutual respect, a familial connection, all the stars are aligned for Matthews to sign with the Patriots. The only hang up could be how New England’s cap situation lines up with Matthews’ contract demands, but if that can be sorted out, Matthews could do wonders for the present and, through mentorship, future state of the Patriots linebacking core.
Photo: (Roger Steinman – AP Photo / Winslow Townson – AP Photo)