Don Brown seems to be a popular man in New England. The Massachusetts native has served as defensive coordinator at the University of Michigan for the last five seasons, and during this time has seen two of his best players get drafted by the New England Patriots: the team picked Chase Winovich in the third round back in 2019, and added Josh Uche in the second round last offseason.
With the linebacker position still a need for the Patriots, could they go back to the Michigan well and take one of Brown’s former players in the middle rounds? That certainly could be the case given that Cameron McGrone would not just fill a need within their defense, but also fits the mold the club is looking for at the inside linebacker position.
Name: Cameron McGrone
School: Michigan (Junior)
Opening day age: 21
2020 stats: 5 games (5 starts); 26 tackles (2 tackles for loss); 0.5 sacks
Size: 6007, 234 lbs, 77 1/2 wingspan, 32 1/8 arm, 9 1/4 hand
Workout numbers: 20 bench press reps
Expected round: 3rd
Strengths: If you had to draw an inside linebacker from scratch, chances are he would look pretty similar to McGrone. He has some good size to play the position and also offers the range teams want from their off-the-ball personnel. McGrone is a fluid lateral mover capable of making plays all over the field, who also possesses the instincts and football intelligence to recognize plays and attack down the hill versus the run.
In general, he showed some good development in this area and became a better processor through his college career at Michigan. This also is on display when used as a pass rusher from the second level: McGrone knows how to time his blitzes and find holes in the offensive line to get into the backfield, and also has shown an ability to shed blocks and take advanced angles. He also makes his presence felt on contact and is a technically sound tackler who is not afraid to lay the wood.
Weaknesses: Having played just 19 games through three seasons in Ann Arbor, McGrone is inexperienced and a raw prospect who has to improve in multiple areas. He needs to become stronger and build more muscle while continuing to grow into his frame, needs work in coverage especially versus tight ends over the middle of the field and when one-on-one with running backs on wheel routes, and oftentimes runs himself out of plays due to overcharging or getting lost in traffic.
His injury history is also a major issue for McGrone. He tore the ACL in his right knee as a high school junior, and later was forced to end his junior season at Michigan early because of the same injury in his left knee. He also appeared in only one game upon joining the Wolverines, and therefore has only one full year of experience on his résumé. That season was impressive and showed his upside, but he was not able to deliver a proper follow-up campaign in 2020 due to his knee injury.
Why the Patriots? New England loves defenders that are instinctive and have the football IQ to make the transition to the pro game. McGrone therefore is a natural fit and could be a target in the late third round if still on the board. Add the fact that he is filling a need — the Patriots need to prepare for life after Dont’a Hightower — and coming form a program obviously well-respected by Bill Belichick and company it would not be surprise if they had their eye on the 20-year-old.
Why not the Patriots? As mentioned above, injuries have been a major issue for McGrone over the course of his career. While dozens of linebackers have successfully come back from ACL tears before, there is a chance that the Patriots do not feel comfortable in his medicals and decide to take him off their board altogether. His limited experience at the collegiate level and one-dimensionality compared to other mid-round linebackers also work against McGrone.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? With Dont’a Hightower still under contract for one more year, and with Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan and Terez Hall also on the roster, McGrone might be asked to take a redshirt-caliber season as a rookie. While that does not mean he will catch the famed “Foxboro Flu” and end up on the non-football injury list, the Patriots could allow to sit him or only employ him in a package-specific fashion and on special teams while having him learn the ins and outs of the defense behind the scenes.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? In case Dont’a Hightower does leave as a free agent after the 2021 season, McGrone would be a prime candidate to take over as the Patriots’ leading inside linebacker. If he indeed receives top billing within the position group, he would be given plenty of snaps in his second NFL season and possibly also take over the lead-communicator role held by the future Patriots Hall of Famer.
Does he have positional versatility? As noted above, other linebackers in this year’s draft offer more versatility than McGrone. Despite his solid range and functional athleticism, he is primarily a traditional inside linebacker who does not fit the move role New England has given players such as Hightower or Kyle Van Noy in the past. That does not make him a bad fit, of course, but it limits his flexibility within the Patriots’ scheme.
What is his special teams value? McGrone could be given considerable special teams snaps from early on in his career. He has the speed to serve as a coverage player on both kickoffs and punts, and as such would be a two-unit player right from the get-go. Depending on how his defensive usage evolves, however, so would his kicking game contributions.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? If drafted in his expected range, McGrone would be a lock to make New England’s roster this year. That said, he would compete for playing time against other inside and move linebackers on the Patriots’ current payroll: Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Terez Hall and LaRoy Reynolds would be his primary competition, with Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings also possibly competing for off-the-ball snaps.
Verdict: The Patriots have gone to the Michigan well in back-to-back years now, but both Chase Winovich and Josh Uche were safer projections at the next level than McGrone. That being said, if the team feels confident about his upside and medicals he might be worth a mid-round flyer if the team does not select another linebacker earlier in the draft.