Cameron McGrone did not play a single snap or dress for a single game — preseason or regular season — during his first rookie year with the New England Patriots.
But there’s a reason the team has high hopes for the young linebacker as he enters Year 2.
Though he spent most of the 2021 season recovering from the torn ACL that ended his Michigan career, McGrone was able to begin practicing in late November. He did so for three weeks before reverting to the physically unable to perform list, where he remained for New England’s home stretch and brief playoff run.
What did the Patriots see from the fifth-round draft pick during that stretch? According to outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick, they saw a player who looked right at home on an NFL field.
“It was exciting to have him on the field last year for those couple weeks before he reverted to IR or PUP,” Belichick said Tuesday in a video conference. “When he was practicing, it was really exciting to see him out there. One thing that I noticed is that all the other guys on the field had been playing football for months, and then he had been coming off of a year or whatever of not playing football, and he really didn’t look in any sort of way out of place on the field, which I thought was impressive.”
Belichick isn’t the first Patriots evaluator to hype up McGrone this offseason. During the 2022 NFL Draft — in which New England declined to select any linebackers — director of player personnel Matt Groh gave McGrone an unprompted shoutout, saying the team is “excited to see him be in an expanded role” this season.
Groh said he views McGrone as a de facto member of this year’s Patriots draft class after his rookie redshirt. That makes sense: Even with an NFL season under his belt, the 21-year-old is younger than all but two of the team’s 2022 draftees.
McGrone also is a departure from the type of linebacker the Patriots typically have valued — a smaller (6-foot-1, 236 pounds), more athletic defender than the likes of Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan, who could have prominent defensive roles this season, also are undersized by traditional New England standards.
“(McGrone) plays fast, he’s got good speed, and he showed some good instincts out there (in) practice, which was, again, exciting to see,” Belichick said. “You kind of take it for granted where all these guys have been playing for months and months and playing games and stuff like that, and then this kid comes on the field for the first time, going against NFL players, which he’d never done before, everybody else has been playing, he hadn’t played in a long time, he’s coming off a knee injury, and he looked like he belonged out there with everybody else.
“So that was cool to see. I know it was unfortunate that he had to go back on IR and finish the season there, but (he’s) a young kid and I’m excited to work with him going forward. He did a great job last year for us.”
McGrone will be a player to watch when the Patriots kick off organized team activities next Monday.