For years the New England Patriots’ linebacker group was headed by the likes of Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. However, none of them are currently on the roster: Hightower and Collins remain unsigned in free agency, with Van Noy having been released earlier this offseason and since joining the Los Angeles Chargers.
While Hightower returning could still happen — the team reportedly seems to be interested in bringing him back if he wants to continue his career — the youth movement is still underway. The young players at the position are fully aware of that.
“It’s definitely sad to see those guys go, Jamie, High, KV,” second-year outside linebacker Ronnie Perkins told reporters after Tuesday’s minicamp practice. “But it also tells us it’s time to step up. Can’t lean on those older guys any more. It’s time for us to step into their shoes.”
Perkins joined the Patriots as third-round pick last year but did not appear in a single game, effectively being redshirted for his rookie season. Nonetheless, he participated in meetings throughout and was able to soak up what the veterans in the room told him.
“I definitely got a chance just to see how a lot of those guys think, their mind processes in some of the situations that I was struggling with,” he said. “Watching [Matthew] Judon, watching High, watching all those guys, it was just helping me a lot. To see how they think, to see how they lined up with certain things that I was struggling with.”
Perkins projects as a valuable rotational player along the Patriots’ defensive edge this season, a position he shares with Josh Uche.
A second-round selection in 2020, Uche 22 in-game appearances on his career résumé and will likely play a prominent role within New England’s defensive front seven this year. He is not oblivious to the personnel turnover either, but pointed to the guys still remaining in the room as proof of its quality.
“You have a lot of great, experienced guys,” Uche said on Tuesday. “You have [Ja’Whaun] Bentley; you have Raekwon [McMillan]; you have a multitude of different guys. I’m learning every day, continue to learn.”
Uche himself, meanwhile, is focused on getting better in order to help the team in any way, shape or form that he can.
“Whatever coach needs me to do, I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities,” he said. “Whether it be special teams, defense, whatever it is. I’m going to do my best whatever it takes to help the team win. ... Rome wasn’t built in a day, and just laying down the foundation each day brick by brick.”
Perkins echoed his teammate’s remarks, also making sure to mention his “help the team” mindset. He additionally noted that he has already made tremendous strides since first joining the program a little over a year ago.
“I just improved pretty much everything,” the 22-year-old said. “My strength; I improved at football, like Xs and Os, being on the board. Just improved everything; technique — from the small things I just feel like I got a lot better than when I showed up.”
The Patriot will count on Perkins and Uche continuing their development in 2022. Frankly, their defensive success might just depend on the young pair taking the next step.