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Patriots linebacker Josh Uche is finally starting to put it all together in Year 3

Related: Patriots defense shows progress but still comes up short against Bills in 24-10 loss

NFL: DEC 01 Bills at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ 2021 draft class has been a mixed bag. While some selections such as safety Kyle Dugger or guard Michael Onwenu have developed into valuable contributors, most others — including the team’s third-round tight ends — have flamed out and are no longer with the team.

After two years, second-round linebacker Josh Uche found himself right in the middle between those two extremes but trending ever so slightly toward the “bust” category. The numbers, after all, were not reflective of his draft status.

With injuries limiting him to just 22 combined games in his rookie and sophomore campaigns, Uche registered just four total sacks. He was able to flash his talents on occasion, but was never quite able to put it all together and develop into the bona fide pass rusher his potential suggested he might become.

At least early on, his third year with the Patriots was more of the same. Uche went sack-less the first five weeks of the season before missing two contests due to a hamstring injury. When he returned, however, something had changed: he started to take down opposing quarterbacks.

Then he did it again. And again. And again.

In the five games since his involuntary break, Uche has registered seven sacks. Only one player in the NFL — San Francisco 49ers standout and current NFL sack leader Nick Bosa (7.5) — has notched more since Week 8.

What has happened? Frankly, Uche has begun taking advantage of his opportunities. Whether they came in the form of teams focusing on Matthew Judon opposite him, or him going up against some opposition not up to the task does not matter: he is finally turning into the impact player the Patriots hoped they would get when they traded up to draft him 60th overall in the spring of 2020.

While Uche’s mid-season breakout might have come as a surprise to some, others were not shocked by seeing his development. The aforementioned Matthew Judon, arguably the team’s best player through 12 games, already spoke about his young teammate’s potential back in November.

“For him to come out there and have a game like he had, and then play lights-out like that, that just allows him to see what he can do in this league,” Judon said after Uche’s three-sack performance in Week 9 against the Indianapolis Colts. “He can be a premier pass rusher, and I always tell him, he’s probably the best pass rusher we’ve got.”

Uche may or may not be he best pass rusher on New England’s roster, but he currently is the team’s most productive. His game against the Buffalo Bills last Thursday night was more proof of that.

Playing a season-high 43 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, he registered a pair of sacks, a forced fumble that was recovered by Judon, and a career-high seven tackles. On a day that saw the Patriots struggle in all three phases, Uche was one of the few standout performers.

With five regular season games left to be played and the Patriots only one game behind in the AFC playoff race, getting positive contributions out of Uche and the pass rush will be massively important down the stretch. That is especially true given that the team’s offense has shown little signs of progress.

If New England’s defense has to carry the team to the postseason tournament as a result, Uche will be a key player — if he can keep building on his recent level of play.