The New England Patriots’ 2020 season was a disappointment: the team went just 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, all while former quarterback Tom Brady kept playing at an elite level and led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a championship. However, not all was as bad for the Patriots last season as it appears at first glance.
Take New England’s rookie class. The group did show some growing pains during a challenging first season at the professional level — the fallout from the Coronavirus pandemic made for a difficult transition for all first-year players — but also produced some impressive results. Offensive lineman Michael Onwenu and safety Kyle Dugger stole the show, but another youngster also showed up whenever on the field.
Second-round draft pick Josh Uche flashed his potential throughout the season, and is already working his way back for 2021: according to ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss, the 22-year-old is among a group of players regularly visiting the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium facility these days to rehab from injury.
In Uche’s case, the ailment in question is a foot injury that knocked him out of the regular season finale and forced New England to send him to injured reserve. In general, staying healthy proved to be a challenge for the 60th overall selection in last year’s draft: before his foot issue, Uche already spent time on IR after hurting his ankle.
All in all, he appeared in just nine games all season. However, he repeatedly showed why the team was comfortable to trade up in the draft to get him: Uche showed his disruptive skills time and again — he finished the season with 17 quarterback pressures in just 99 pass rushing snaps — and also was trusted with playing not just on the defensive edge but occasionally off the ball as well.
Moving forward, his healthy will obviously be a determining factor when it comes to his role on the team in 2021.
If able to stay healthy for most of the season, Uche should earn a prominent role as a potential move linebacker in the mold of ex-Patriots Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. He can play both on the edge and off the ball, after all, and added experience in both areas should help him turn into a viable every-down player and de facto starter in the front seven — adding depth and playmaking ability the unit sorely missed in 2020.
Seeing Uche already work on getting back to full strength heading into his first real offseason is therefore certainly a positive. The Patriots now will have to hope that the effort does lead to a second-year jump similar to that of fellow linebacker Chase Winovich last season. Together, the two are expected to build the core of the position moving forward.