The New England Patriots fielded the NFL’s best scoring defense in 2019, but had to watch some serious talent leave over the course of the offseason. Among the departed players are linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, who signed free agency contracts with the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions, respectively. As a result of the two men leaving, the Patriots opted to invest some serious capital in their front seven during the draft last month.
The first player brought aboard was Michigan’s Josh Uche, who New England traded up for to snatch with the 60th overall selection. Based on his usage in college and his skillset, the second-round pick projects to help the team fill the role previously held by Van Noy: he should see considerable snaps early on as a do-it-all edge defender with considerable upside both as a pass rusher and a rangy drop-back coverage linebacker.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at Uche’s film to find out what he will bring to the table and how he could be used early on in his career.
The Wolverines used Uche primarily on pressure packages early on in his career — when he shared the field with fellow Patriots edge defender Chase Winovich — but he saw a notable uptick in snaps during his 2019 redshirt junior season: not only was he on the field for more than half of Michigan’s defensive snaps, he also was moved all over the formation to take advantage of his quick-twitch athleticism and ability to adjust his play depending on positioning.
While he did spend most of his time on the edge outside the offensive tackle (299 snaps, according to the Pro Football Focus 2020 NFL Draft Guide), he also was regularly moved back to play an off-the-ball role (170 snaps). His usage at the Senior Bowl in late January reflected his versatile skillset: he played primarily on the edge, but did line up in numerous techniques and find considerable success as a downhill defender.
Josh Uche time!— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 25, 2020
Really versatile player who can line up at any spot in the Patriots’ defense. Has an explosive first step to go with great bend and balance around the arc.
Was an absolute nightmare for the South’s OTs in the Senior Bowl pic.twitter.com/uj1gt3YltG
Playing for the North team, Uche proved to be a handful for offensive tackles despite his less-than-prototypical size (he was measured at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds at the scouting combine). His explosive first step and snap anticipation were both impressive and regularly put the blockers lined up on the other side of him in difficult situations because he combined them with quick hand usage and good bend around the corner.
Uche also made an impact during his time in college by being able to convert his speed to power:
Uche can also make an impact on the edge by converting speed to power, threatening with his burst and speed before getting his hands inside and bull rushing.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 25, 2020
Lacks the power to consistently finish, but his strong hands are enough to knock back linemen and push the pocket pic.twitter.com/mnmY1aY0uV
He consistently threatened offensive linemen with his burst and speed when attacking from the edge, but used his hands and adequate strength well to challenge them through his bull rush. While Uche does lack the high-end power to consistently finish, his hand usage certainly allows him to knock linemen back and challenge their balance, and also to move the pocket and provide pressure beyond just registering sacks — something he did quite a bit in 2019: according to PFF, he notched 38 combined hits and hurries atop his eight sacks.
Uche may lack size but he is capable of blending his natural athleticism with a strong technical foundation, which in turn allows him to find success both against the run and the pass. The following collection of plays, which shows him doing a good job with his explosiveness and using it to attack the leverage of the blockers in front of him, shows this:
The Patriots love sending their LBs on stunts to get after the passer and blitzing then to create chaos in the run game.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 25, 2020
Uche does a great job using his explosiveness to get on OL quickly, then dips under them and runs his feet to win the leverage battle pic.twitter.com/IWRsr5wgyB
As can be see on the very first play, Uche (#6) did not make the sack but still had a big impact o the play by forcing Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (#10) out of the pocket. He was able to do that thanks to his quick inside move upon starting to charge upfield, and by catching two offensive linemen — Landon Dickerson (#69) and Deonte Brown (#65) — off guard. Uche played the down perfectly, by using his hands well and reducing his impact area to charge through Brown into the backfield.
In general, he knows how to use leverage to his advantage and to employ his hands in a way that makes it difficult for blockers to absorb him:
Uche’s on the smaller side for the edge, but he uses his natural leverage well and his strategic hand use helps keep OL from getting into his body and shutting down his rush pic.twitter.com/xrq3BifNIx— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 25, 2020
Against Notre Dame, he was able to showcase his ability to get low and force offensive tackles to block down on him. On the first play seen here, he attacked from the defensive left side out of a wide-nine alignment in a two-point stance: offensive tackle Robert Hainsey (#72), who measures at 6-foot-5, tried to make Uche run the loop but was unable to properly engage the smaller edge rusher. The Michigan man therefore slipped under the outside shoulder to get into the backfield and force.
Play number two, also against the Fighting Irish, was more of the same. While he lined up on the other side of the formation, Uche again exploited the hight differential between himself and left tackle Liam Eichenberg (#74). The defender was able to get low, forcing the blocker to adjust his position, and to turn the corner quickly without losing any significant speed.
While Uche’s impact as a pass rusher is well documented, his ability to play sideline-to-sideline also should not go unnoticed: he has a great range when asked to drop back into coverage, was capable of running up the seam with some of the fastest players in college football, and even showed that he could play the deep middle of the field if asked to do so. Uche’s natural athleticism allowed him
Really fun to watch in coverage. Great range for the position, running up the seam with some of the fastest players in college football and even playing deep middle third.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 25, 2020
Looks like a natural dropping in zone and can knock receivers off course with his punch pic.twitter.com/2f2llYFkex
During Penn State, Uche dropped back into coverage numerous times and generally fared well. While he did give up some ground while playing the deep middle on the first play above, he generally looked comfortable even when asked to cover more than 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. One of his plays against Alabama (1:01) is a good illustration of that, as he essentially served as a deep-field safety in Michigan’s Cover 3 scheme — despite originally lining up on the line of scrimmage before the snaps.
The Patriots will likely not have him play this role in 2020 given that they have one of the deepest safety corps in the NFL, but those plays show that he could be counted on when asked to cover running backs or tight ends even if they attack beyond the underneath portions of the field.
Uche’s skillset is impressive and makes for a versatile linebacker capable of playing all over the front seven, but his eventual role in New England is still hard to predict given his oddly sparring playing time at Michigan. That said, it would not be surprising to see the Patriots use him in a Kyle Van Noy-like capacity: he could see the field as a situational pass rusher and blitzer early, while playing some off-ball linebacker on early downs against faster offenses.
Van Noy shined in this hybrid role and developed into a regular playmaker in the Patriots’ defensive scheme. Time will tell whether or not Uche’s impact will be similar, but the foundation certainly is in place for him to leave his mark as early as Year One.