The New England Patriots’ defense figures to return to its dominant ways in 2021 after they struggled last season following a flood of free agency departures and player opt outs.
The ceiling of the group will hinge on what happens with Stephon Gilmore amid his contract dispute, but the individual talent guys like Dont’a Hightower, who opted out last year, Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Jalen Mills bring to the table will make a huge difference.
With that being said, however, don’t be surprised if some members of the Patriots’ young defensive core shine following this infusion of high-end talent.
After all, their presence will only help first- and second-year players make that next step in their development.
One player who already seems to be reaping the benefits? Josh Uche, who, according to ESPN insider Mike Reiss, was one of the premier standouts of mandatory minicamp. Not only that, but there’s growing speculation that Uche is poised play a bigger role as a sophomore.
So, what could an expanded role look like for the 2020 second-round pick?
What might an expanded role with the Patriots look like for Josh Uche?
Unfortunately for Uche, the Patriots linebacking group is stacked following their free agent spending spree. As things stand, the likes of Hightower, Van Noy, Judon and one of Raekwon McMillan or Ja’Whaun Bentley are ahead of him in the pecking order.
However, the former Michigan star has been spent the offseason refining his pass-rushing technique and that could help him earn more playing time. After all, outside of Judon, who’s managed 34.5 sacks over his five NFL seasons, the Patriots don’t really have an elite rusher.
Since we’re projecting an expanded role for Uche, it’s paramount to know that, of the nine contests he appeared in as a rookie, he logged just 178 snaps. While the 22-year-old missed significant time due to a foot injury, that equates to just 19.1 snaps per game.
If Uche’s offseason momentum continues through training camp and he enters 2021 as third or fourth in the outside linebacker/edge rushing pecking order, the Patriots would be out of their minds to give him anything less than a 62% snap share.
If that happens, fans should expect Uche to post a stat line in the range of 30 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hits, 20 pressures and maybe a forced fumble or two. After all, he registered nine tackles (two for loss), one sack, seven QB hits and 10 pressures as a rookie.
We obviously need to see more than an impressive minicamp (where players don’t wear pads) from Uche to fully buy into the offseason hype. However, we’re pretty darn close to doing so and the fact he’s been working with the Patriots’ first-team linebackers at practice suggests fans would be justified taking a sip of the Kool-Aid.