FOXBORO, Mass. — Before the fifth practice of last year’s Patriots training camp, Bill Belichick raved about one of the less heralded members of the team’s blockbuster free agent class: linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
“Raekwon’s done a real good job,” the New England head coach said on Aug. 2. “I’ve been very impressed with his intelligence, his work ethic. He’s locked in every day. He works extremely hard both on and off the field. Does a great job of trying to get it just the way that it’s supposed to be, the way he’s been taught. He takes all that very seriously and handles a lot of responsibility in there.”
McMillan, it seemed, had put himself in strong contention for a roster spot after coming over from the Las Vegas Raiders months earlier. He’d made several standout plays during the opening week of camp and had prior experience in a Patriots-type defense after playing for Brian Flores in Miami. Belichick, who’d targeted McMillan in the 2017 NFL Draft but failed to land him, clearly liked what he was seeing from the former Ohio State standout.
But one day later, McMillan’s season was over. He tore his ACL while covering a punt in practice, landing him on season-ending injured reserve and initiating a months-long recovery process.
Now, that process is nearly complete. McMillan, in his own words, is “pretty much full go.” And he looks poised to compete for a prominent role in New England’s new-look linebacking corps.
When the Patriots took the field Monday for Day 1 of organized team activities, the 26-year-old joined veteran holdover Ja’Whaun Bentley on the team’s top defensive unit, manning one inside linebacker spot.
It’ll be months before any starting jobs are decided — Belichick always stresses that spring practices are a time for teaching, not evaluation — but McMillan clearly is a strong candidate for one.
“I got to sit back last year and watch,” McMillan said after practice. “It was hard to watch at times, because obviously I wanted to be out on the field, but after sitting back and watching last year, I’m ready to go this year. … We’re moving forward to this year, and it’s going to be a good year.”
When he arrived in New England last offseason, McMillan spoke of his admiration for Dont’a Hightower, the veteran Patriots linebacker whom he’d constantly study during Pats-Dolphins games. Hightower no longer is on New England’s roster, remaining unsigned more than two months into free agency. Super Bowl winners Kyle Van Noy (Los Angeles Chargers) and Jamie Collins (free agent) also are gone, clearing the stage for a fresh batch of Patriots ‘backers.
Other than Bentley, a 255-pound bruiser who started 29 games over the last two seasons and re-signed in March, most of those players don’t fit the Patriots’ traditional prototype for the position. After looking old and slow at the second level late last season, New England now features a handful of smaller, more athletic linebackers, with the 6-foot-2, 242-pound McMillan joining the 6-1, 233-pound Mack Wilson and 6-1, 236-pound Cameron McGrone.
McGrone, a 2021 fifth-round draft pick who’s received praise from multiple Patriots evaluators after sitting out his rookie season with an ACL tear, was limited in Monday’s practice but will be a player to watch in the coming weeks and months.
Third-year pro Josh Uche (6-3, 245) also took reps at both outside and inside linebacker Monday.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys,” McMillan said. “A lot of good chemistry, though. A lot of the old veteran guys that had a lot of Super Bowl runs, playoff runs, you name it; those guys did a lot for this team and this organization. But we’ve got a young group coming up, and I like where we’re at.”
Despite his injury, which the team knew would sideline him for the entire season, the Patriots signed McMillan to a one-year contract extension last September, signaling they envisioned a role for him in 2022. Now healthy, he’s ready to reward that commitment.
“I remember just a couple months ago, I wasn’t able to move left and right,” McMillan said. “Now I’m out here taking team reps for the team, and it feels cool. It feels good.”