Josh Uche ‘an important piece’ to Patriots' defensive puzzle

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The Patriots’ defense is certainly going to have a bit of a new look heading into 2022, especially at the linebacker position.

Kyle Van Noy was cut, while longtime captain Dont’a Higthower and veteran Jamie Collins remain unsigned free agents.

That’s a lot of experience, snaps and plays that are no longer on the linebacker depth chart at Gillette Stadium. Which means there are important jobs, roles and reps up for grabs in New England.

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After the draft, when linebacker was not addressed, director of player personnel Matt Groh said the team was “excited” about some of the younger returning players at the position.

Talking to the media via Zoom this week, outside linebackers coach and 2021 play caller Steve Belichick echoed those thoughts.

In particular, Belichick seems to have high hopes for third-year former second-round pick Josh Uche. Uche started just one of the 21 games he played over his first two seasons in New England. He saw just about 30-perent playtime in those two years, each of which ended with the former Michigan star on IR. He has just four sacks, 11 QB hits and 12 tackles on his NFL resume.

But Belichick certainly seems to have a role in mind for Uche moving forward as he plans what the Patriots defense is going to look like and it sounds like it could be a significant one.

“I see him as part of the, since it’s the hot word right now, part of the blueprint. I see him being an important piece to the puzzle for us going forward,” Belichick said. “There’s a lot of factors to it besides what he’s going to do. We have to see what everybody else does and work the pieces around from there. I see Josh being a big part of this defense. We’ll see how the competition plays out. Josh is another guy who’s doing everything right, who’s putting a lot of hard work in, setting 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.
He’s done everything right so far.”

Uche isn’t the only young, unknown option at linebacker.
The group also includes 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings, who started four of 14 games played as a rookie before spending all of last season on IR. Ronnie Perkins essentially had “red-shirt” season as a second-round rookie in 2021 out of Oklahoma. Cameron McGrone was a fifth-round pick a year ago out of Michigan, spending his entire rookie season on NFI due to a torn ACL suffered in college. Even Raekwon McMillan is a still-young veteran returning from the torn ACL that sidelined him from his entire first season in New England as a free agent signing.

That’s a lot of unknowns looking to replace a lot of known commodities and the experience that Van Noy and Hightower, in particular, brought to the defense.

“I would agree with that. Yeah, these guys haven’t played as much football as those guys,” Belichick said. “Even though, again, we kind of have to see what we’ve got here, but we got what we got. And we feel good about it. So we’ll shoot our shot and see how it goes.”

Just because Uche, Perkins and the rest aren’t as established as their predecessors, Belichick made it clear that doesn’t mean the Patriots are just throwing stuff at the wall, or the field rather, at the linebacker position.

“I don’t look at it as developmental, from the aspect of you’re starting with nothing and just kind of see what you get and throw it out there,” Belichick said. “You brought up an interesting word with the blueprint, so in terms of building structures you need a blueprint going in and I’m sure things happen along the way. I’ve never really built a house or anything like that, but when I’m building my daughter’s playhouse certain obstacles come my way and you just gotta react and adapt to what happens. That’s what we always try to do. We put a plan in place. We have a foundation. But at the same time we’re always changing and adapting and expanding what we do. So we’ll try some of that stuff out and see how it looks. If it looks good we’ll keep going in that direction. If it doesn’t, we’ll try to do what we feel is best for the team. We’re just working through what we got and kind of see how it shakes out. But we absolutely have a plan going forward.”

And according to Belichick, it sounds like Uche could be sizable part of that plan.

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