With one month to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s draft class.
Name: Josh Uche
Position: Move linebacker
Jersey number: TBD
Opening day age: 21
Size: 6-foot-1, 245 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Uche arrived in the NFL as a second-round draft pick by the Patriots in late April, which means that his experience as a pro is limited to eight weeks worth of virtual workouts as well as New England’s rookie developmental program. So far, however, he has not yet been able to step onto the practice field alongside his teammates due to the Coronavirus pandemic forcing the league to cancel all offseason workouts. Nevertheless, Uche does have plenty of football on his résumé.
Spending four seasons at the University of Michigan, he appeared in a combined 39 games for the Wolverines. It was not until his 2018 junior season that Uche really broke out, however, and earned a more prominent role in the team’s defensive front-seven. While he still served mostly as a rotational pass rusher, he registered a combined 65.5 quarterback pressures — 15.5 sacks, 14 hits, 36 hurries — and led the team in sacks during both his junior and senior campaigns. He also forced two fumbles and had one recovery.
What did his 2019 season look like? After already flashing his potential in 2018, Uche took another step in his development during his 2019 senior season. Not only did he maintain his high level of pass rush productivity despite playing a bigger role, he also showed a tremendous amount of versatility while setting a new-career high with 13 in-game appearances as well as 470 snaps played — a noticeable uptick considering that he was on the field for only 197 over the course of his first three years in Ann Arbor combined.
Uche’s combination of explosiveness and power made him a tough assignment for the offensive linemen playing on the opposite side of him, and allowed him to generate consistent pressure: he registered 46.5 combined quarterback disruptions in 2019 in the form of 8.5 sacks, 13 hits and 25 hurries. He furthermore generated pressure on 23.3 percent of his pass-rushing attempts, according to Pro Football Focus, and ranked second among all FBS-level edge defenders in this efficiency statistic.
The impact Uche had on Michigan’s defense extended beyond his ability to create pressure, though: he also forced a pair of fumbles and notched one recovery, and had 11.5 tackles for loss on a combined 35 total takedowns. Due to his standout work, he was voted Michigan’s Defensive Player of the Year by his teammates and nominated to the second All-Big Ten team. All year long, Uche bolstered his stock and eventually decided to use his momentum to enter the draft despite having another year of eligibility available.
What is his projected role? The Wolverines opted to use Uche both as an edge defender and an off-the-ball linebacker during his final season, and such a role could also be in the cards for him in New England. He could therefore see prominent snaps in the Patriots’ hybrid front right away as a move option in the mold of free agency departures Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. As such, he might play on the line in the Patriots’ 5-1 looks as well as their 4-2 and 4-3 alignments and also move back if they run a more traditional 3-4 or 3-3.
What is his special teams value? Uche was primarily a rotational defender in Michigan, which allowed the coaching staff to also give him extensive looks in the kicking game — a trend that could very well continue at the next level. If the Patriots see him in a similar light as 2019 Jamie Collins, for example, the rookie might be featured on both punt return and punt coverage units and also see action on the field goal/extra point blocking squads.
Does he have positional versatility? Uche was moved all over the formation during his senior campaign: not only did he play 299 snaps between the 5-technique and wide-9 roles — aligning over or away from the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder — he also added 170 more as an off-the-ball linebacker. Uche played both positions successfully at the college level, but he will have to show the Patriots that he can do the same against NFL competition: from setting a proper edge versus the run to not overshooting his gaps.
What is his salary cap situation? The first member of the Patriots’ draft class to sign his rookie deal, Uche agreed to a standard four-year pact with the team that will keep him in New England through the 2023 season. While he will eventually count $979,879 against the salary cap once the NFL’s Top-51 rule is lifted after roster cutdowns in September, he currently is on the Patriots’ books with a lower cap number of only $369,879 — his fully-guaranteed signing bonus proration for this year.
What is his roster outlook? Considering that the Patriots invested the 60th overall draft pick in him just two months ago, Uche is a lock to make their 53-man roster this year. The main question entering his rookie campaign is therefore whether or not he can carve out a regular role within New England’s front-seven — and what it will eventually look like. Given his raw skillset, he might take the route of his former Michigan teammate Chase Winovich: during his own rookie season in 2019, Winovich was the Patriots’ third edge option behind Kyle Van Noy and John Simon. With Van Noy gone and the ex-Wolverine possibly moving up in the rotation, Uche could fill his role as a versatile rotational sub-package pass rusher. Either way, his potential both in the long and the short term is intriguing.