After a healthy scratch deactivation, ankle and foot injuries and an injured reserve stint, New England Patriots second-round pick Josh Uche finally made his NFL debut Sunday.
Was it worth the wait? Maybe not. But the athletic and versatile linebacker certainly showed some promise on limited opportunities in the Patriots’ 24-21 Week 8 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Uche officially played 12 defensive snaps — six at right outside linebacker, five at inside linebacker and one split out to cover a running back — but that doesn’t really tell the full story. The Patriots had much more limited plans for Uche.
The rookie’s first shot at playing time came at right outside linebacker on third-and-12 with 12 seconds left in the first quarter when he was on the field for a false start on the Bills. He stayed on for the ensuing third-and-17 snap and registered a QB hit on a Josh Allen incompletion.
The former Wolverine’s next opportunity came on second-and-13 with 1:54 left in the first half. He lined up at right outside linebacker, rushed the passer, engaged with the left tackle, and got knocked over on a block from the side by the left guard. Allen completed a 5-yard pass to wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Uche stayed on the field for third-and-8 as a stand-up rusher head-on with the left tackle. He rushed the quarterback but was halted by a double team from the left tackle and left guard. Allen was picked off by Patriots cornerback JC Jackson.
The second-round pick’s next snap came on a heads-up play to start the third quarter. Starting linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley was late to get out of the locker room, Uche noticed and ran onto the field just before the snap and assisted on a tackle, helping defensive tackle Lawrence Guy bring down running back Devin Singletary after a 6-yard gain.
Uche next saw action with 6:50 left in the third quarter on third-and-8. He lined up at left cornerback covering Singletary. Allen scrambled, and Uche came off of his coverage to stop him for just a 2-yard gain, forcing a punt.
CBS broadcaster Charles Davis had this to say:
“This is a tremendous open-field tackle against a 237-pound quarterback. Uche about 225-226, built more like a strong safety than a linebacker, but he has that type of agility to stay on his feet in the open field, not get fooled by the move and drop him to the turf.”
Uche is listed at 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, but it’s blatantly inaccurate. He was listed at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds in college at Michigan. Uche measured in at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. So, where is this 226-pound listing coming from?
Asked after the game if that listed weight is correct, Uche said he actually weighs around 245-to-248 pounds. That’s certainly how big he looks on the field. He looks like a linebacker. If he was 226 pounds, he’d look like Patriots wide receiver N’Keal Harry (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) or safety Kyle Dugger (6-foot-2, 220 pounds).
But that does make Uche’s open-field tackle even more impressive that he can stick with an agile quarterback like Allen for a 2-yard stop. So, that’s four intentional snaps for Uche and one as an emergency fill-in for Bentley.
Bentley’s sixth defensive snap came at inside linebacker with 7:05 left in the fourth quarter after Bentley left the game with a groin injury. He engaged with a blocker on a 1-yard run by Bills running back Zack Moss.
Uche left the field for the next snap but was back at inside linebacker with 5:41 left in the game on a 1-yard loss by Singletary. The rookie was in on the tackle. He spent the next two snaps at right outside linebacker dropping back into coverage. The first play was a 6-yard pass to Diggs. The second was an incompletion.
Uche’s final three snaps were at inside linebacker on Allen’s kneel-downs to end the game. So, he played nine meaningful snaps, and only four were clearly part of the game plan.
The Patriots do need better play and more depth at linebacker, however. Bentley didn’t re-enter the game after injuring his groin. If Bentley can’t play Week 9 against the New York Jets, the Patriots’ inside linebacker options would be Uche, fellow rookies Anfernee Jennings and Cassh Maluia and practice-squadders Terez Hall and Michael Pinckney.
Jennings, after playing 14 snaps in Week 4, 28 snaps in Week 6 and 53 snaps in Week 7, didn’t see the field defensively in Week 8. Maluia, a 2020 sixth-round pick, hasn’t played a defensive snap all season. Hall, an undrafted free agent in 2019, and Pinckney, an undrafted free agent signed at the end of September, have never played in a regular-season game.
Even if Bentley is healthy in Week 9, there should be no guarantee that he maintains his nearly every-down role. Bernd Buchmasser from SBNation notes that safety Devin McCourty, not Bentley, recently has worn the green dot communication helmet typically donned by the middle linebacker. Outside linebacker John Simon also took a turn.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about Bentley on Monday and didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement.
“Ja?Whaun?s gotten a lot of playing time,” Belichick said. “He?s gotten a lot of snaps in multiple personnel groups. He?s had a good leadership role for us in terms of calling the defense and making adjustments and those kind of things. Yeah, he?s a young player who needs more playing experience, he?s getting a lot of it and he?s getting better.”
But what about his play on the field? Bentley ranks 77th out of 82 qualified linebackers in PFF player grades. He’s been the best option at inside linebacker because he’s the only option at inside linebacker.
Uche could change that in the coming weeks.