The New England Patriots were led by a former Wolverine for almost 20 years. With Tom Brady, who spent his entire five-year college career at the University of Michigan, having left the organization earlier this offseason, however, other players will be asked to pick up the slack and carry the team into a new decade and an uncertain future.
Chances are that other Michigan men will be among them; the Patriots currently have four on their roster.
Linebacker Chase Winovich is entering his second year in the system, while veteran offensive lineman Ben Braden is in his first. Also in their first season in New England are rookies Josh Uche and Michael Onwenu. While it remains to be seen what the future holds for Braden and Onwenu — the former is bottom-of-the-roster player at the moment, the latter a developmental prospect — there is a good chance that Winovich and Uche will play considerable roles on the team’s defense this year.
With Dont’a Hightower having opted out of the 2020 season, and with fellow linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts having departed in free agency, there are some roles to be filled in the Patriots’ front-seven. Winovich is expected to take over one of them as a promising outside linebacker, while Uche could very well seize another if he continues what has been a strong first training camp so far.
“Right now I’m just doing whatever is needed of me, whatever the coaches are asking me,” the second-round draft pick said earlier this week during a media conference call. “Each and every day, just improving slowly and surely, brick by brick. I put pressure on myself every day, that’s the way my dad raised me. So, whatever the coaches tell me to do, I’m trying my best to get that done.”
New England brought Uche aboard as the 60th overall selection in this year’s draft. While the 21-year-old was mostly used in a rotational role during his time in Ann Arbor, he repeatedly flashed his talents as not just an edge rusher but a linebacker capable of playing multiple positions for a defense similar to how the Patriots used Hightower and Collins in 2019.
The Patriots’ coaching staff apparently also feels confident in using Uche in a versatile role. Now in his second week of full-pads training camp practices, he has already seen time as an outside linebacker playing both downhill and dropping into coverage, as well as inside the formation and off-the-ball. The early results may not always be perfect — as has to be the expectation for any first-year player — but they certainly are encouraging. The same goes for Uche’s improvement within the system.
Getting better on a daily basis is also what his former teammate preached during his own conference call this week.
“We’re taking things one step at a time,” said Winovich about the defense’s development in light of the recent personnel turnover. “It’s a learning curve. Whenever you lose a couple of players, the situation is what it is. We’re just trying to adapt the best we can, but we have a lot of guys that love football, love learning about the game, coming to meetings, attacking with enthusiasm, trying to be the best we can be each and every day.”
Winovich is taking on a leading role in this process. In his rookie season last year, the third-round draft choice finished fourth on the team in combined quarterback disruptions behind only Van Noy, Hightower and Collins. With the productive veteran trio now gone, his job is to pick up the slack while also helping bring younger players such as Uche and fellow rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings up to speed quickly.
The 25-year-old seems appreciative of this opportunity, especially in regards to Uche.
“It’s been great playing with Josh. You can tell he has a real passion for the game. He’s obviously very talented,” said Winovich. “It’s awesome playing with Josh. It really is great. Great playing with Michigan men here. We need more of them.”
Uche himself, meanwhile, had nothing but positive words to say about his college-teammate-turned-mentor.
“It’s great to have a familiar face around the facility. He’s just been a really good mentor. Just trying to compete with him. He sets the bar very high. It’s very great. It’s a blessing and what a terrific coincidence that we ended up on the same team.
“This is all new to me, just the NFL in general. I’m just learning how to be a professional, learning new habits, learning how to take care of my body. Everything, in general, is just step-by-step,” Uche added when speaking about his pro level experience so far. “Learning from the older guys — that’s the Slaters, the McCourtys — learned a lot from [Ja’Whaun] Bentley and John Simon. Just learning from those guys and trying to follow in their footsteps.”
Following in others’ footsteps is what the Michigan connection is collectively trying to do, even if the ones created by Tom Brady are as big as any in NFL history. But regardless of the circumstances, Winovich and Uche could come up big for the Patriots’ new-look defense this year.