When Dont’a Hightower decided to opt out of the 2020 season, the New England Patriots were left understaffed at the linebacker position. Ja’Whaun Bentley was designated as Hightower’s replacement, but ended up playing only 59.8 percent of the team’s defensive snaps while failing to properly replace the future Patriots Hall of Famer.
New England also used practice squad call-up Terez Hall as well as rookies Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche, but they all had their fair share of ups and downs as well — so much so that the team actually turned to its defensive backfield to bolster the depth in the box: safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger were regularly used in the “star” linebacker position, but their size was an issue.
Seeing the Patriots address the position in free agency this year was therefore no surprise. After already adding versatile edge options Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy, New England also brought Raekwon McMillan on board to improve the depth off the ball.
Name: Raekwon McMillan
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-2, 240 pounds
Contract: 1 year
A former five-star recruit, McMillan spent three years at Ohio State before deciding to take his talents to the NFL. One of the better off-the-ball prospects in the 2017 draft, he came off the board in the second round when the Miami Dolphins invested the 54th overall pick in him. However, McMillan ended up spending his entire rookie season on the sidelines after he tore his ACL during the Dolphins’ preseason opener. He returned the following year, though and immediately made an impact on the team’s defense.
McMillan started 16 games for the Dolphins in 2018, and finished second on the team in both tackles and forced fumbles. While he showed promise, he failed to reach those levels of play again: he saw limited playing time the following season after Miami changed head coaches, and in August 2020 was eventually traded to the Las Vegas Raiders. McMillan played 16 games for his new team but was mostly used on special teams. All in all, he has 45 in-game appearances on his NFL résumé.
What is his projected role in New England? McMillan was used almost exclusively as an off-the-ball linebacker in both Miami and Las Vegas. He is therefore projected to play the same role for the Patriots as well: he will align at the second level of the defense, adding some some solid functional athleticism to a group that lacked just that in 2020. While not a lock to return to the same levels of play he showed in 2018, a change of scenery in March as opposed to August could help him carve out a role.
Where does he fit on the linebacker depth chart? With the exception of Dont’a Hightower and Anfernee Jennings no member of New England’s off-the-ball/move linebacker group should be considered a safe bet to be on the team this season. This includes McMillan: likely playing on a relatively low-cost deal, he will have to earn his spot on the roster against Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall, Cassh Maluia and Michael Pinckney.
Does he have positional versatility? McMillan’s positional versatility is somewhat limited. While he did see some snaps as an outside linebacker in his lone season in a Patriots-like scheme down in Miami in 2019, he primarily was used as a classic inside linebacker both with the Dolphins and the Raiders. New England could try to tap into his versatility, but the expectation is that he will be used similarly to Bentley and Hall.
What is his special teams value? After seeing only limited special teams action in his first healthy season as a Dolphin, McMillan’s playing time in the game’s third phase increased each year. He played 37 percent of Miami’s kicking game snaps in 2019, following by a 61 percent rate with the Raiders. In Las Vegas, he was a five-unit special teamer: McMillan played on both kickoff teams, both punt teams, and on the place kick blocking units. He is expected to see quite a bit of action in the kicking game in New England as well.
What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? While the full details of McMillan’s reported one-year contract have not yet been released, the expectation is that the deal will not have too big an impact on the Patriots’ current $25.1 million in salary cap space. Anything but McMillan costing more than $2 million against New England’s cap this season would be a surprise given his past two seasons.
What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Despite McMillan bolstering New England’s off-the-ball linebacker depth, the position is still one the Patriots might look to address in the draft. After all, Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and himself are all headed for unrestricted free agency next year. The long-term future at the position is still very much in question beyond 2021.
One-sentence verdict: Even if he fails to live up to his second-round draft status, McMillan offers some cheap competition at the off-the-ball linebacker position.
How would you grade the Patriots’ decision to sign Raekwon McMillan?
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