New England Patriots fifth-round pick Cameron McGrone faced a difficult decision after his 2020 season.
The linebacker suffered through an injury-plagued junior season already shortened by COVID-19 that culminated with a torn ACL in November. So, he could return for his senior season and hope to heal his injured knee in time to improve his draft stock, or he could declare for the draft and cross his fingers that a team would look at the bigger picture of his college career and take him with an eye toward the future. There was really no best option, but he chose to enter the draft, and the Patriots took him with the 177th overall pick.
It’s a bit of a gamble for New England, but it’s one that could pay off in a major way in 2022 and beyond. McGrone is still just 20 years old and is a natural fit in New England’s defense. The Patriots took a kicker in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft who never even made it off the practice squad before getting cut. So, McGrone is already a better draft pick than the player New England selected in the fifth round last year.
McGrone is definitely smaller than the typical Patriots linebacker. The Indianapolis native measured in at 6-foot-1, 234 pounds at his pro day in March but didn’t work out — beyond putting up 20 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press — because of the knee injury. The average Patriots drafted linebacker is 6-foot-2, 243 pounds. The prototypical Patriots linebacker looks more like Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower or Jamie Collins in the 250-pound range. But despite being 15 pounds lighter, McGrone comes with a similar skill set.
He’s fearless charging downhill, and his best trait is his run defense.
He’s also an excellent blitzer and has impressive closing speed when he gets near the quarterback.
Watch him blow up a running back, grasp Illinois’ quarterback and force a strip sack:
He plays smart and in control and didn’t miss a single tackle during his injury-shortened junior season, per PFF. His natural instincts and vision are on display as he avoids blockers and doesn’t waste any steps on his path to a ball carrier.
McGrone does have a tendency to get lost and caught up in traffic at times. And he doesn’t have a ton of experience in coverage beyond dropping into the middle of the field. That shouldn’t necessarily be a major problem in New England, however. The Patriots don’t ask their linebackers to cover running backs or tight ends 20 yards down the field. Patriots linebackers are best in coverage with their opponent in front of them. McGrone is the same way. If a running back catches a ball against him, it won’t take long for McGrone to get him down on the turf.
He won’t be quite as stout as someone like Hightower while filling gaps, but McGrone does come with a unique element of sideline-to-sideline speed. He seriously closes in a hurry, playing like a heat-seeking missile even while tracking a running back from behind.
McGrone might have caught Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s eye in the Citrus Bowl against Alabama in 2019.
Early in the fourth quarterback, he made back-to-back plays, stopping running back Najee Harris for a loss and batting a pass from quarterback (and current teammate) Mac Jones.
Later in the fourth quarter, McGrone stopped Harris for no gain on first down, Jones for no gain on second down and forced the QB out of the pocket for an incompletion on third down.
McGrone played better in 2019 than he was last season, but he also was forced to start the 2020 season with a club on his hand after suffering an injury. There also was a larger sample size to choose from in 2019, but he appeared to be a more explosive player.
He has starting potential in the middle of the Patriots’ defense, and Hightower, along with fellow linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall and Raekwon McMillan, will be free agents after the 2021 season. There’s no real succession plan in place behind Hightower, so it’s fun to think about McGrone’s potential. He might not be ready until 2022 after tearing his ACL in November, which Belichick acknowledged in his post-draft news conference. In an ideal world, McGrone would be ready for training camp, make the Patriots’ 53-man roster and compete for snaps behind Hightower in 2021. The next best course of action would be to have McGrone start the season on the non-football injury list and incorporate him into the mix at midseason.
Taking McGrone was a smart risk for the Patriots, who had a loaded roster without a lot of room for rookies. It makes complete sense to draft a player to stash on a reserve list until he’s needed. That could come in 2021, or he might not see the field until next season. But he’s a young player with plenty of potential.