The New England Patriots‘ loss to the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs sent two clear messages to fans and the front office: the offense is nowhere close to competing with the AFC’s elite and the second level of the defense is way too slow to keep up with modern day offenses.
While the addition of DeVante Parker changes the complexion of the offense, the jury is still out on the defense after Bill Belichick surprisingly bypassed drafting a linebacker in Round 1 in favor of Chattanooga lineman Cole Strange.
In fact, the Pats went the entire draft without a snagging a linebacker, which seems questionable considering they cut Kyle Van Noy, who has since signed with the Chargers, and Dont’a Hightower is currently contemplating his NFL future again.
By process of elimination, this puts former draft picks Josh Uche, Ronnie Perkins and Cameron McGrone in line for bigger roles. In other words, expect a completely different look at linebacker from New England in 2022.
The Patriots’ LB rotation could look a lot different in 2022.
This idea will scare fans, as Uche, Perkins and McGrone don’t have much experience under their belts, but it’s a necessary changing of the guard.
During a recent appearance on the “Pats from the Past” podcast, inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo was bullish on the unit’s newfound youth and speed following the departures of Van Noy, Hightower (presumably) and Jamie Collins.
"I think this year, thinking about the guys we have in the room, we have some guys that can rush and cover. And so, I think we have some guys that Pats nation, they haven’t even heard of probably.That is the exciting part: the unknown. And we’re going to go into it as a unit, we’re gonna go into it together. And, I would say, even right now, not having some of those older guys in the room is beneficial for the younger guys because older guys would be bored out of their minds with some of the things we’re talking about.At the same time, it’s forcing young guys to really take that step forward, and really grow and develop without being hindered by any other guy’s experience."
With Ja’Whaun Bentley, who re-signed in free agency, and trade acquisition Mack Wilson expected to start, the average age of the Patriots’ linebackers is 24! Of that group, Bentley is the oldest at 25, and he’s already played 48 games (33 starts) in Belichick’s defense.
Raekwon McMillan, who wont turn 27 until November, could play a significant role after he turned heads at training camp last year before suffering a torn ACL. The same can be said for Anfernee Jennings, who just recently turned 25 and has played just 14 games as a 2020 third-round pick out of Alabama.
Is Bentley ready to step up as the de facto leader of the group? Can McMillan piggyback off his impressive 2021 camp? Are the likes of Uche, McGrone, Jennings and Perkins, who didn’t play at all as a rookie, ready to play meaningful snaps?
Nobody knows. One thing’s for certain, though, and it’s that speed won’t be to blame this time around if the unit struggles. Of course, inexperience could prove to be their downfall, but that’s why Belichick and Mayo get paid the big bucks, right?