With the offseason workout program and mandatory minicamp in the books, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with linebacker Cameron McGrone.
Name: Cameron McGrone
Position: Off-the-ball Linebacker
Jersey number: TBD (Offseason No. 54)
Opening day age: 21
Size: 6-foot-1, 235 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2024 (2025 UFA)
What is his experience? McGrone entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick by the Patriots earlier this spring, which means that his experience at the pro level is virtually non-existent. He was spotted during voluntary offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp, but had to play the role of spectator while still recovering from a season-ending knee injury suffered in November. Due to the injury that cost him most of his junior season at the University of Michigan, McGrone’s college experience is also somewhat limited.
All in all, he appeared in 19 games for the Wolverines over a three-season span. That being said, the majority of his action came in his second year in the program: McGrone played only one game as a true freshman before suiting up for 13 games the following season — one that also included 10 starts. He showed his promise that year and in 2020 as well, despite the aforementioned ACL tear ending his career at Michigan prematurely. Still, he left the school being named an honorable All-Big Ten mention twice.
What did his 2020 season look like? After establishing himself as the starting middle linebacker in then-defensive coordinator Don Brown’s 4-3-based defense early on during the 2019 season, McGrone was poised for a breakout campaign as a junior. He appeared to be on a good way: McGrone continued to combine some good instincts with intriguing athleticism and over the first five games of the season registered 26 tackles as well as half a sack. However, he was unable to build on this momentum due to injuries.
After not suffering any reported injuries during his first two years as a Wolverine, McGrone had to leave the team’s late-October game versus Michigan State in the second quarter due to an apparent head injury. He was back the following week but was hurt again in November against Rutgers. This time, he was unable to return: McGrone had torn the ACL in his left knee, ending his season and drastically altering his pre-draft process: McGrone, who decided not to stay in school, was unable to do any workouts during his Pro Day.
What is his projected role? Based on his usage at Michigan, McGrone projects as a classic off-the-ball linebacker in New England’s multi-front defense. As such, he will offer long-term depth behind the current top two, Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley, who are both headed for unrestricted free agency in March 2022. McGrone is still a raw and developing player, but his potential cannot be denied and makes him an intriguing addition to New England’s linebacker corps despite his injury history.
What is his special teams value? Depending on his recovery, 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: the Patriots might decide to give them fewer snaps in case he receives a prominent role as an off-the-ball linebacker.
Does he have positional versatility? The Patriots value positional flexibility in their linebackers, but McGrone has not yet shown much in this area during the course of his career: out of 943 defensive career snaps at Michigan, 890 came with him aligned in a traditional box linebacker position (94.4%). While he did play outside linebacker in high school and has some good speed to possibly attack around the edge, the Wolverines’ coaches did not trust him in such a role. Whether or not New England’s will remains to be seen.
What is his salary cap situation? Shortly after the Patriots selected him with the 177th selection in this year’s draft, McGrone agreed to a standard four-year contract with the organization. As part of this deal he is currently counting $60,038 against New England’s salary cap (his guaranteed signing bonus proration). One the Top-51 rule is lifted, McGrone’s $660,000 salary will be added for an in-season cap number of $720,038.
What is his roster outlook? 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, the Patriots can certainly afford to give McGrone a redshirt season as a rookie — something head coach Bill Belichick hinted at during a post-draft media conference call. While that does not guarantee he will catch the famed “Foxboro Flu” and end up on the non-football injury list, the Patriots very much appear to see it as a realistic outcome. Accordingly, McGrone should not be expected to play much of a role, if any role at all, as a rookie.