Coming off a torn ACL that prematurely ended his junior season at Michigan, Cameron McGrone was not expected to take the field as a rookie in the NFL.
His first year with the New England Patriots was indeed a redshirt campaign of sorts. A fifth-round selection by the Patriots in the 2021 draft, McGrone spent the entire offseason, all of training camp, and first three months of the regular season recovering and therefore sidelined on the non-football-injury list (NFI).
He was still able to gain experience in the class room, and even made a brief appearance at practice. New England, after all, opened the 21-day NFI activation window in late November, allowing him to spend three weeks working alongside his teammates.
While a return to the active roster never materialized, the Patriots’ coaching staff was apparently impressed by what it saw in McGrone’s limited time on the practice fields.
“It was exciting to have him on the field last year for those couple weeks before he reverted to [NFI],” outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick told reporters during a media conference call on Tuesday.
“When he was practicing, it was really exciting to see him out there. One thing that I noticed is that all the other guys on the field had been playing football for months, and then he had been coming off of a year or whatever of not playing football, and he really didn’t look in any sort of way out of place on the field, which I thought was impressive.”
Listed at 6-foot-1, 236 pounds on the Patriots’ roster, McGrone is not the same type of linebacker the team has employed through the years. Instead, he is built like a modern-day defender capable of covering sideline-to-sideline and making plays versus the run.
As such, he projects as a vital part of New England’s rebuilt off-the-ball linebacker corps this season. With Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins still unsigned as free agents, and with Kyle Van Noy released and now with the Los Angeles Chargers, the team has gotten noticeably smaller and quicker at the position.
Adding McGrone was one part of this process, and listening to Belichick it is not hard to find out what the team sees in him and his skillset.
“He plays fast, he’s got good speed, and he showed some good instincts out there which was exciting to see,” Belichick said about his return to practice in 2021. “You take it for granted; all these guys have been playing for months and months and playing games, and then this kid comes onto the field for the first time, going against NFL players, which he’d never done before, everybody else has been playing, he hadn’t played in a long time, he’s coming off a knee injury, and he looked like he belonged out there with everybody else.
“That was cool to see. I know it was unfortunate that he had to go back on [NFI] and finish the season there, but a young kid and I’m excited to work with him going forward. He did a great job last year for us.”
Fellow assistant coach Jerod Mayo, who is working with the Patriots’ inside linebackers, also sang McGrone’s praises this week.
“Cam’s done a great job staying engaged in the class room. Couldn’t go onto the field,” he said on Monday. “This year, I would say, he’s healthy, he’s back out here, he’s running around, he looks good, and he’s also picking up the defense.”
Expecting McGrone to suddenly break out and become Dont’a Hightower 2.0 in terms of impact would be unfair to him. That said, he figures to be a prominent part of the rotation alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley, Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan.