Pro Bowler Matthew Judon will be one of the New England Patriots’ starting outside linebackers this season.
But who will start opposite him? That’s anyone’s guess.
With Kyle Van Noy now in Los Angeles, Jamie Collins lingering unsigned in free agency and Chase Winovich traded to Cleveland, it’s unclear who will man the Patriots’ other edge rusher spot as the team prepares to begin organized team activities next week.
Two candidates for that role received promising reviews Tuesday from position coach Steve Belichick.
Belichick, New England’s outside linebackers coach and primary defensive play-caller in 2021, said he envisions third-year pro Josh Uche playing a prominent role this season.
“I see him (as) part of the blueprint, and I see him being an important piece to the puzzle for us going forward,” Belichick said. “There’s a lot of other factors to it besides just what he’s going to do. We’ve got to see what everybody else does and work the pieces around from there, but I see Josh being a big part of this defense.”
Uche, a 2020 second-round draft pick, showed flashes of potential as a rookie and was dominant at times in last summer’s joint practices. But the Michigan product struggled to earn playing time in a crowded linebacker rotation last season, playing just 21.9% of defensive snaps and tallying zero sacks, zero quarterback hits and one tackle for loss over New England’s final 15 games, five of which he missed due to injury.
Belichick said he’s seen good progress from the athletic 23-year-old this offseason.
“We’ll see how the competition plays out, but Josh is another guy who’s doing everything right,” he said. “He’s putting a lot of hard work in, and he’s setting himself up as well as he could to help us out on the field once we get to camp. It’s all just a building process, and he’s done everything right so far. I’ve got no complaints.”
Belichick also praised 2021 third-rounder Ronnie Perkins, who took a de facto rookie redshirt as he transitioned from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker. Perkins did not dress for a single regular-season game despite being healthy for most of the year.
“Just looking (for him) to take a step forward, which he has been so far to this point,” Belichick said. “All that really matters at the end of the day is what happens when we put the pads on, but he’s done everything right to this point to set himself up to do well once we get to training camp and into the preseason and regular season.
“But Ronnie’s done a great job. He’s stuck around here (during the offseason). I’m excited about all of those guys.”
Belichick later added fuel to the Cameron McGrone hype train, saying the 2021 fifth-round pick looked the part during his three weeks of practice late last season. McGrone, who at just 21 is the third-youngest player on New England’s roster, did not play as a rookie as he recovered from a torn ACL but has received praise from several Patriots decision-makers this offseason.
Though veterans like Judon and Ja’Whaun Bentley remain, the Patriots are set to field a much younger linebacking corps this season following the departures of Van Noy, Collins and longtime co-captain Dont’a Hightower. (Collins and Hightower still are unsigned and theoretically could return.) That could prove beneficial after New England lacked speed and explosiveness at the second level during the 2021 home stretch.
“These guys haven’t played as much football as those guys, so we kind of have to see what we’ve got here,” Belichick said. “But we’ve got what we’ve got, and we feel good about it, so shoot our shot and see how it goes.”