With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror and training camp set to kick off later this month, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 86 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
Name: Raekwon McMillan
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
Jersey number: 46
Opening day age: 26
Size: 6-foot-2, 240 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2024 (2025 UFA)
What is his experience? A former five-star recruit, McMillan spent three years at Ohio State before deciding to take his talents to the NFL. One of the better off-the-ball prospects in the 2017 draft, he came off the board in the second round when the Miami Dolphins invested the 54th overall pick in him. However, McMillan ended up spending his entire rookie season on the sidelines after he tore his ACL during the Dolphins’ preseason opener. He returned the following year, though, and immediately made an impact on the team’s defense.
McMillan started 16 games for the Dolphins in 2018, and finished second on the team in both tackles and forced fumbles. While he showed promise, he failed to reach those levels of play again: he received limited playing time the following season after Miami changed head coaches, and in August 2020 was eventually traded to the Las Vegas Raiders. McMillan played 16 games for his new team — mostly on special teams — before joining the Patriots in 2021. All in all, he has 45 in-game appearances on his NFL résumé.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off a rather quiet season, albeit one that saw him have some encouraging moments on special teams, McMillan entered unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. He did not have to wait long to find a new home: five days into the new league year, the Patriots brought him in on a one-year contract worth $1.15 million with $250,000 in guarantees. The deal gave the former second-round pick an opportunity to prove himself, and he appeared poised to do just that.
McMillan fit right in with New England, and saw regular practice reps on both defense and special teams early on in training camp. However, one of those kicking game plays ended his season with him tearing the ACL in his left knee on a punt coverage drill in early August. The Patriots rested him for three days before eventually sending him to injured reserve ahead of the reactivation deadline; McMillan’s first year with the organization came to an end before it really began and even before the start of preseason.
Despite being sent to IR and facing an uncertain future, the Patriots showed confidence in McMillan after the start of the regular season: in late September, the team restructured his contract to add another year. Including the one-year extension, the deal was worth $2.19 million — including $250,000 in guarantees. New England therefore sent a clear message about its feelings toward McMillan, and his potential within the team’s defense; instead of becoming a free agent in March 2022 he was now set for another season.
What is his projected role? McMillan was used almost exclusively as an off-the-ball linebacker in both Miami and Las Vegas, and his practice usage in 2021 and thus far in 2022 suggests that little will change for him in New England. He is therefore projected to align at the second level of the defense, adding some solid functional athleticism to a group that lacked just that the last two years. While not a lock to return to the same levels of play he showed in 2018, the Patriots obviously feel confident in his outlook — confident enough to have him compete for a starting role alongside veteran Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Does he have positional versatility? McMillan’s positional versatility is somewhat limited. While he did see some snaps as an outside linebacker in his lone season in a Patriots-like scheme down in Miami in 2019, he primarily was used as a classic inside linebacker with the Dolphins, Raiders and in limited practice reps in New England. The team could still try to tap into his versatility, but the expectation is that he will be used like the other off-the-ball linebackers on the club’s roster even though with a more rounded skillset than Bentley or still unsigned veteran Dont’a Hightower.
What is his special teams value? After seeing only limited special teams action in his first healthy season as a Dolphin, McMillan’s playing time in the game’s third phase increased each year. He played 37 percent of Miami’s kicking game snaps in 2019, following by a 61 percent rate with the Raiders. In Las Vegas, he was a five-unit special teamer: McMillan played on both kickoff teams, both punt teams, and on the place kick blocking units. He is expected to see quite a bit of action in the kicking game in New England as well in 2022, despite tearing his ACL in the game’s third phase last summer.
What is his salary cap situation? As noted above, the Patriots reworked McMillan’s contract last September to keep him signed beyond the 2021 season. As a result of this, he is now on the team’s books with a salary cap hit of $1.06 million — a number that currently qualifies for Top-51 status. The deal itself consists of a partially-guaranteed $965,000 salary ($100,000 are guaranteed) as well as $180,000 in not-likely-to-be-earned per-game bonuses and a $50,000 roster bonus.
How safe is his roster spot? With the exception of his $100,000 salary guarantee, the Patriots would not take on any dead cap in case they decide to release McMillan between now and the roster cutdown deadline in late August. As a result, the 26-year-old cannot be seen as a true lock to make the 53-man team. That said, the current composition of New England’s linebacker group in combination with the prominent role he played during offseason workouts suggests that he will not just make the team but possibly be a big part in the heart of the team’s defense.
One-sentence projection: Seemingly fully healthy coming off his torn ACL, McMillan will make the roster and serve as a top-two off-the-ball linebacker alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley.