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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Josh Uche is one of New England’s breakout candidates

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: LB Dont’a Hightower

NFL: NOV 29 Cardinals at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the offseason workout program in the books and training camp being kicked off later this month, 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 Josh Uche.

Hard facts

Name: Josh Uche

Position: Move linebacker

Jersey number: 55

Opening day age: 22

Size: 6-foot-1, 245 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Uche arrived in the NFL as a second-round draft pick by the Patriots last year, which means that his experience as a pro is limited to one season — one that was marked by a mix of intriguing play and injury woes. But even though he only has a total of nine games on his professional résumé so far, Uche has played plenty of competitive football through his career. Before arriving in New England, after all, he spent four seasons at the University of Michigan.

During his time in Ann Arbor, Uche appeared in a combined 39 games. It was not until his 2018 junior season that he really broke out, however, and earned a more prominent role in the team’s defensive front-seven. While he still served mostly as a rotational pass rusher for the Wolverines and their defensive coordinator, Don Brown, he registered a combined 65.5 quarterback pressures — 15.5 sacks, 14 hits, 36 hurries — and led the team in sacks during both his junior and senior campaigns. He also forced two fumbles and had one recovery.

What did his 2020 season look like? One of the most intriguing edge rushers to enter the NFL’s 2020 draft, Uche heard his name called midway through the second day of the virtual event: the Patriots had traded two third-round selections to the Baltimore Ravens to move up eleven spots to the 60th overall, and to make him their second selection after safety Kyle Dugger. Just like Dugger, Uche also flashed his talents throughout the season even though he missed some time because of two separate stints on injured reserve.

In total, Uche played nine games during his rookie campaign and was on the field for 178 of a possible 1,017 defensive snaps (17.5%). While his playing time numbers certainly do not stand out, the youngster made the most out of his opportunities and finished the season with 17 combined quarterback disruptions to rank as the fifth most productive pass rusher on the team. Uche notched one sack on the year (in Week 10 against the Ravens); he also had seven quarterback hits as well as nine additional hurries.

Rushing primarily from the defensive edge, but also seeing the occasional snap off the ball, Uche also registered nine total tackles: he had six against the run and three against the pass. While he was not perfect — he also had three missed tackles on the year — he did have an encouraging first year in New England’s system. This is especially true due to the fact that he did not enjoy a traditional offseason and training camp experience: the Coronavirus pandemic disrupted his arrival in the league.

Another problem for Uche was his inability to stay on the field. The youngster, who had a few injury issues at Michigan as well, missed considerable time for medical reasons. He struggled with an ankle issue early during the season that cost him five total games — the final four of which on injured reserve — and later was sent to IR again because of a knee injury; a foot ailment led New England to send him there ahead of the season finale. For as good as Uche looked in spurts, he was unable to sustain his momentum.

The first-year pro left a positive impression during his nine games, though, and generally looked like an NFL-caliber defender. His contributions on defense were not the only value he brought to the organization, however. Uche also was employed on special teams, albeit not in as prominent a role. Still, he finished his rookie season with 46 snaps in the game’s third phase (of 399; 11.5%). He was called into action on three units, with the most of his time being spent on the two return squads.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? The Patriots opted to use Uche both as an edge defender and an off-the-ball linebacker during his first season in the system, and a similar role should also be in the cards for him in entering his sophomore campaign in New England. He could therefore see prominent snaps in the team’s hybrid front alongside offseason additions Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy as well as third-year man Chase Winovich. While it remains to be seen whether he will be used as a pass rush specialist or a true every-down move linebacker, he has the skillset to play on the line in the Patriots’ 5-1 looks as well as their 4-2 and 4-3 alignments and also move back if they run a more traditional 3-4 or 3-3.

What is his special teams value? As noted above, Uche did see quite a bit of special teams action during his first season in New England. The Patriots used him as a pressure player on punt return teams and a front line blocker on the kickoff return unit; they also employed him on the field goal/extra point blocking squad in two of his nine games. Heading into 2021, Uche should therefore expect to see some action on special teams again — even though his defensive role might decide his output.

Does he have positional versatility? Uche was used predominately as an outside linebacker during his first season as a Patriot, but the team also experimented with him as an off-the-ball defender: 21.3 percent of his 178 defensive snaps (38) came with him aligned inside the formation. Furthermore, Uche was not used only as a pass rush specialist but he also saw some snaps versus the run and even was asked to drop back into coverage from time to time. The lone target into his area was not completed.

What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second season of his rookie contract, Uche will hit the Patriots’ salary cap with $1.22 million this year. That number consists of his $854,970 salary as well as a $369,879 signing bonus proration. Both of those numbers are fully guaranteed, meaning that New England would not gain any money in case of a release. And why would the Patriots release him? Uche, after all, has the potential to become one of the biggest bargains on the roster.

What is his roster outlook? Uche is guaranteed a spot on the team due to his draft status, the upside he showed last season, and his performance during offseason workouts. While they are not an accurate representation of his development just yet, the 22-year-old still appears to be among the Patriots’ breakout candidates this year: Uche looked very good at times in 2020 and if he can build on this success in a traditional setting — i.e. one not massively impacted by Covid-19 — he could become a cornerstone of the team’s defensive front seven both this year and beyond.