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 Raekwon McMillan.
Name: Raekwon McMillan
Position: Off-the-ball Linebacker
Jersey number: 46
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-2, 240 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
What is his experience? 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 received 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 did his 2020 season look like? Coming off a sophomore season that was cut short due to a hamstring injury, McMillan saw the Dolphins invest considerable resources in their linebacker position. Kyle Van Noy, Shaq Lawson, Elandon Roberts and Kamu Grugier-Hill were all signed in free agency, with the team later also adding Curtis Weaver to the equation in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. The additions created a deep linebacker position, and one that suddenly had no more place for McMillan.
Midway through training camp, Miami therefore decided to sent the former second-round draft selection to the Raiders via trade; the Dolphins sent him and a fifth-rounder in 2021 to Las Vegas for a fourth-round selection that same year. McMillan, unsurprisingly, made his new team’s roster and went on to appear in all 16 of its games — only the second time in his four-year career that he has been able to accomplish this feat. But while his durability was encouraging, his role looked different than in Miami.
While he was used primarily on the defensive side of the ball during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the Raiders employed him as a special teamer first. Playing on five units, he ranked third on the team in kicking game snaps: McMillan was on the field for 285 of a possible 466 snaps (61.2%) and registered a combined four tackles. He was less active on defense, meanwhile, with Las Vegas’ coaches giving him 169 snaps (of 1,089) as a box linebacker for a career-low playing time share of 15.5 percent.
McMillan played mostly against the run and registered 18 of his 23 total tackles versus the ground game; he also forced a fumble. He furthermore allowed opposing quarterbacks to go 5-for-8 when targeting him in the passing game for 83 yards as well as a touchdown. McMillan also was rarely used in pass rushing situations: he attacked the pocket nine times but was unable to register any quarterback disruptions. In total, his season was a rather quiet one — even though he had some encouraging moments on special teams.
What is his projected role? 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 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.
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.
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 in similar fashion as other primary off-the-ball linebackers such as Ja’Whaun Bentley or Terez Hall.
What is his salary cap situation? Four days after their early-free agency spending spree, the Patriots added McMillan via a one-year contract with a value of $1.15 million. Given that the pact includes a signing bonus proration of $50,000 a well as $200,000 in salary guarantees, New England would save most of the total cost if deciding to part ways with the 25-year-old via trade or release. His deal can therefore be seen as a potential low-risk/high-reward investment.
What is his roster outlook? Despite Dont’a Hightower’s return after a year on the Coronavirus opt-out list, the Patriots’ off-the-ball linebacker position remains a question mark heading into the training camp. While last year’s top-two players — Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall — are still part of the equation, they are in the same basic position as McMillan: they are not locked into roster spots and therefore will have to prove themselves in training camp and preseason. New England deciding to keep the former high-round draft choice over one of the two returnees would not be a surprise, but McMillan will have to adapt quickly to make this a reality. If not, his contract makes him an easy cut candidate.