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Raekwon McMillan appears poised to take on a prominent role on the Patriots defense in 2022

Related: Cameron McGrone has put his difficult rookie season behind him

NFL: New England Patriots Training Camp Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Belichick pointing out that spring practices are a time for teaching and implementation rather than competition and evaluation is a yearly tradition in New England. Any reports coming out of the Patriots’ currently ongoing organized team activities therefore needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

That does not mean the information available is not still valuable and can help paint a clearer picture of the 2022 team, especially when properly contextualized. That is exactly why there is to some optimism surrounding linebacker Raekwon McMillan.

McMillan played a starter-level role at the off-the-ball linebacker position during Monday’s OTA practice open to the media. His story up until that point, however, is why the 26-year-old is a player worth keeping an eye on as the Patriots continue the process of rebuilding the position group from the ground up.

After all, McMillan already appeared to be on his way to not just earning a roster spot but becoming a valuable contributor in 2021. A torn ACL suffered early in training camp changed his outlook, though, and forced him to spend his first season with the organization as a spectator instead of being an active participant.

“I got to sit back last year and watch. It was hard to watch at times, because obviously I wanted to be out on the field,” McMillan told reporters earlier this week. “But after sitting back and watching last year, I’m ready to go this year.”

Originally joining the NFL as a second-round draft pick in 2017, McMillan never quite reached his potential during his first four years in the league — in large part due to injuries. Following stints in Miami and Las Vegas, he arrived in New England on a one-year, $1.15 million free agency pact last March. By all accounts, he left a positive first impression before his season-ending knee injury suffered in August.

In fact, the Patriots made sure to keep McMillan around beyond the 2021 season: they signed him to a one-year extension not even two months after his ACL tear. New England obviously still had plans for the 6-foot-2, 240-pound defender.

What those plans will eventually look like remains to be seen. However, Monday’s OTA gave us a first glimpse at McMillan. More than that, it was a step in the right direction — grain of salt be damned.

“Anytime I walk onto this grass with my cleats on, it’s a blessing,” he said. “I remember just a couple of months ago, I wasn’t able to move left and right. Now I’m out here taking team reps for the team, and it feels cool. It feels good.”

McMillan being full-go, per his own description, is a positive for himself and a New England linebacker group that currently does not feature any of its former cornerstones. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins both remain unsigned as free agents. Kyle Van Noy, meanwhile, signed with the Los Angeles Chargers after he was released by the Patriots earlier this offseason.

Without the three veterans, the next generation of linebackers needs to step up — one that might feature McMillan in a rather prominent role.

“We have a lot of young guys. A lot of good chemistry, though,” he said on Monday. “A lot of the old veteran guys that had a lot of Super Bowl runs, playoff runs — you name it. Those guys did a lot for this team and for this organization. But we have a young group coming up, and I like where we’re at.”

McMillan is actually the most experienced off-the-ball ‘backer on New England’s current roster, at least when it comes to time of service. He came to the NFL in 2017, the same year as Harvey Langi (albeit one day earlier). Ja’Whaun Bentley arrived the following offseason, with Mack Wilson, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Jahlani Tavai and Cameron McGrone coming into the league between 2019 and 2021.

Experience alone does not make a starter-level player. Nonetheless, McMillan might just find himself as one when all is said and done.

The Patriots seem to like him, and they gave him plenty of opportunities last summer and during the lone available OTA practice this year. Add the circumstances surrounding his contract extension, and you get a player who appears poised to play a big part in New England’s new-look linebacker room.

As for McMillan himself, he is just happy to be back.

“I’m blessed,” he said. “It’s been a long year for me, but we’re moving forward.”