The New England Patriots’ defense is expected to take a step back in 2022 after it performed as one of the NFL’s best for the majority of last season.
We normally wouldn’t doubt Bill Belichick, but the unit lost way too many key players for it to replicate its 2021 form. The defensive line is an obvious strength, but the cornerback and linebacker positions have roles that are anything but settled with OTAs up and running.
With no Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins or Kyle Van Noy (who got released and has since joined JC Jackson on the Chargers), Ja’Whaun Bentley is suddenly the most experienced LB on the roster with 33 career starts under his belt.
Beyond Bentley, the exodus of veteran linebackers creates an opportunity for former second- and third-round picks Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, as well as trade acquisition Mack Wilson, to step into a prominent role next season. 2021 fifth-rounder Cameron McGrone could even get first-team reps.
With all that said, it feels like everyone’s forgotten about Raekwon McMillan, who was poised for a key role last year before he tore his ACL in training camp. Don’t be shocked to see the 26-year-old with the starters this summer.
Raekwon McMillan could be a big part of the Patriots’ linebacker rotation in 2022.
It was almost a year ago so folks might forget, but McMillan was well on his way to becoming a key cog in the linebacker rotation – let alone make the roster – before his ACL injury. The former Dolphins second-round pick practiced with the first-team and was a safe bet to be the top guy off the bench.
As much as it pained McMillan to watch from the sidelines, he told reporters at OTAs he viewed it as a valuable learning experience.
"“I got to sit back last year and watch. 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 have a lot of young guys. 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 for this organization. But we have a young group coming up, and I like where we’re at.”"
Injuries have prevented McMillan, a former star at Ohio State, from living up to his potential as a pro. Despite that, the Patriots clearly see value in the former Buckeye, as they inked him to a one-year extension just weeks removed from his ACL injury.
As a sophomore with the Dolphins in 2018, McMillan managed 105 tackles, five tackles for loss and two forced fumbles across 16 starts. Not even a year removed from ACL surgery and the Patriots already trust McMillan to start as an off-ball linebacker at Monday’s OTA practice.
We can all attest to Bill Belichick’s uncanny ability to breathe new life into castaways and forgotten players. Based on training camp last year and the early portion of OTAs, McMillan is a dark-horse candidate to start alongside Bentley in the second level of the Pats’ defense.