Whether it was Rutgers, Florida or Alabama, the New England Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick have always had their go-to programs when it came to acquiring talent through the NFL Draft. Most recently, another powerhouse emerged alongside those trusted sources of years past: the University of Michigan.
While the New England-Michigan connection goes all the way back to the days of Tom Brady and Ty Law, more ties have since been established: the Patriots have drafted at least one former Wolverine in three straight drafts, with three of them having played the linebacker position under defensive coordinator Don Brown.
New England drafted Chase Winovich in the third round in 2019, followed by Josh Uche in the second last year. Earlier this month, Cameron McGrone joined the group as well, courtesy of a fifth-round selection.
All three played some impressive football over the course of their careers in Ann Arbor, but the thread that ties them all together and eventually led them to join the Patriots is Brown.
“I really feel like I learned just so much from him,” McGrone said during a media conference call shortly after getting drafted by the Patriots. “It’s kind of hard to pinpoint one thing but really just how to be the best linebacker I can be, whether that’s on the field or even off the field by studying film, really learning the game. I feel like he was the best for me in that part of my life.”
Even though Michigan has not lived up to its expectations over the last few seasons, the school put out some impressive NFL talent year after year — particularly on the defensive side of the ball. McGrone, Uche and Winovich are just three of the players coached by Brown to find their way into the league: a total of 22 players who played for him between the 2016 and 2020 seasons were ultimately drafted, five of them in the first round.
Why does New England place an apparent high value on players who previously worked under Brown, though? Josh Uche’s post-draft media conference call last spring helps explain.
“A lot of guys don’t know how complex Coach Brown’s defense is — there’s so many different depths to it and levels to it and a bunch of different plays and sets and different formations you’ve got to do different things with. I definitely feel prepared for what’s to come because Coach Brown is the best in the business and he makes sure his players get ready,” he said at the time.
The range of Brown’s defense was also mentioned by another Patriots draft pick who used to wear the maize and blue. While Michael Onwenu experienced it on the other side of the ball, the offensive linemen praised Brown’s defenses last season.
“I think it has set me up greatly. I mean, going from practice to game and ... other defenses, it’s like, Don Brown, he brings something different every week,” Onwenu said. “It’s keeping me specifically on my toes, just having me ready for everything.”
Brown has gotten his players ready to perform at an NFL level. One of them was Chase Winovich, who established himself as a potent pass rusher for the Patriots during his first two years in the program. That prowess goes back to Brown’s trust in his abilities to get after the quarterback from different spots in the lineup.
“Coach Brown, I called him earlier today and I wanted to make sure it was known that regardless of where I went in the draft, exactly how blessed I was to be playing under him and how much I loved him,” Winovich said about his former coach during his own post-draft media conference call.
“He’s always believed in me and I respect that man to no end. He was there from the jump and recognized my potential from the very beginning. Like I said, he always believed in me and he’s one of smartest people I’ve ever met. He’s just absolutely brilliant and there’s not very many people, if any, that I really have more respect for.”
The Wolverines churned out plenty of NFL-caliber players, but that did not help Brown save his job. With the team as a whole struggling during the Coronavirus-dominated 2020 season, the school decided to part ways with its defensive coordinator after five seasons: Brown was fired in late December, seemingly being used as a scapegoat for greater shortcomings elsewhere.
Regardless of the reasons behind his departure, one thing is certain: it would not be a surprise if Brown-coached players continued to find their way to New England. The reasons outlined above play a role in this, as does the fact that he was since hired by the University of Arizona and former New England quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch.
As for the latest to walk the path from Brown disciple to Patriot, Cameron McGrone, it is not hard to see how he feels about having played under the 65-year-old.
“Coach Don Brown, I’m forever grateful for him.”