FOXBORO, Mass. — Any list of 2021 New England Patriots breakout candidates would not be complete without Josh Uche.
Uche was a second-half standout for the Patriots’ depleted defense in 2020, emerging as an effective pass rusher and versatile front-seven defender after missing the early portion of his rookie season with an injury.
One of the top performers in organized team activities and minicamp this spring, the young linebacker looks poised to take on a more prominent role as he enters Year 2 of his NFL career.
Veteran edge rusher Matt Judon, who signed a four-year, $54.5 million contract with the Patriots in March, raved about Uche after Thursday’s training camp practice.
?Oh, Uche!” Judon exclaimed. “Uche’s going to be great, man. He’s a sponge — he’s soaking up so much knowledge. He can play any position, anywhere on the front seven. We don’t really want him at nose, but if he’s got to do it, he’ll do it with a smile. Getting here, I love jelling with Uche and just shooting the (breeze) with Uche. So far, he’s been really good.”
It’s unclear exactly how the Patriots will utilize Uche this season (though it probably won’t be at nose tackle). The 2020 second-round draft pick mostly played as an edge rusher last year but also saw action as an off-the-ball linebacker when injuries sidelined starter Ja’Whaun Bentley.
The arrivals of Judon and Kyle Van Noy and the return of Dont’a Hightower from his COVID-19 opt-out might keep Uche out of the starting lineup, but he should at least be a key cog in New England’s third-down package, which typically features one down lineman surrounded by four or five roving pass rushers.
Uche ranked fifth among Patriots defenders in total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and tied for third in quarterback hits last season despite appearing in just nine games. He was PFF’s second-highest-graded Patriots defender behind slot cornerback Jonathan Jones.