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Patriots training camp preview: How will the new-look linebacker group perform?

Related: Patriots training camp preview: Will Christian Barmore break out in Year 2?

NFL: JUN 07 New England Patriots Minicamp Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ 2022 training camp is right around the corner. On Wednesday, the team will reconvene at Gillette Stadium to kick off its next level of preparation for the upcoming season — and all that goes with it: full-contact practices, camp competitions, joint sessions, you name it.

Leading up to this year’s camp, we will take a look at all position groups on New England’s roster to give you some idea about the key actors, battles and storylines at each of them. Today, we will continue at linebacker.

Position group

The Patriots’ linebacker position saw the departure of three former cornerstones this offseason. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins both remain unsigned in free agency, while Kyle Van Noy was released and has since joined the Los Angeles Chargers. What remains is a group of plenty questions but considerable intrigue heading into training camp.

Edge/Outside linebackers

Off-the-ball/Inside linebackers

With Hightower and company no longer part of the equation the Patriots’ linebacker group is now being led by Matthew Judon and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Behind the two, the questions begin. On the edge, Josh Uche and Ronnie Perkins are projected to play prominent roles in the rotation; off the ball, Raekwon McMillan, Cameron McGrone and Mack Wilson appear to be LB2 through LB4. None of them are safe bets, however.

So, what does the group as a whole offer compared to last year’s? That is hard to tell ahead of training camp. On paper, there is plenty of upside; Uche, Perkins and McGrone are all legitimate talents even though they have not put it all together yet. The team also has some good experience. Looks like it’s wait-and-see time.

Camp competitions

Josh Uche vs. Ronnie Perkins: With Pro Bowler Matthew Judon locked into one starting spot on the edge, youngsters Uche and Perkins will be competing for the second. Uche appears to be the favorite at the moment, but Perkins cannot be underestimated either: if the Oklahoma product can show some growth from last year’s de facto redshirt campaign he might be able to challenge Uche as OLB2.

Raekwon McMillan vs. Cameron McGrone vs. Mack Wilson: Ja’Whaun Bentley is expected to fill a starting role at the heart of the Patriots defense this year. The question is who will carve out regular playing time alongside him, either on early downs or in the passing game. McMillan, McGrone and Wilson have skillsets different than Bentley’s, so there is a chance that all three of them could turn into key contributors off the ball this year — that is, if their training camp performances give the coaching staff confidence in their abilities to fill such roles.

Harvey Langi vs. Jahlani Tavai: Both Langi and Tavai appear to be on the roster bubble at the moment, but it would not be a surprise if one of the two ultimately made the team based on special teams contributions. In terms of experience, Langi has the edge. Tavai, meanwhile, has youth on his side and might be a candidate to make a Year 2 jump within the Patriots’ system.

Anfernee Jennings vs. DaMarcus Mitchell: At the moment, it appears that undrafted rookie DaMarcus Mitchell is number four on the edge linebacker depth chart. However, that spot might be directly tied to the development of former third-round draft pick Anfernee Jennings. Jennings had a disappointing first two seasons in New England, but his versatility to play both on and off the ball might allow him to earn a role as a do-it-all backup — a role that might come at the expense of Mitchell.

Stories to watch

Who will emerge as starter-caliber players? As noted above, only Matthew Judon and Ja’Whaun Bentley can be counted as starters at the moment. Based on the offseason, however, it appears Josh Uche, Raekwon McMillan and Cameron McGrone might be able to also develop into valuable contributors deserving of “starter” status. Obviously, they have to live up to those expectations throughout camp.

Will Josh Uche live up to the offseason hype? Few players on the Patriots’ roster have received as much offseason hype as Josh Uche, with his position coach and head coach both singing his praises. The former second-round draft pick is projected as a potential starter on the edge alongside Matthew Judon despite being used more as a role player his first two seasons in the system. Needless to say that expectations are high for the 23-year-old and him failing to live up to them might be bad news for New England’s defense as a whole.

Will we see any second-year jumps? Cameron McGrone and Ronnie Perkins combined to play a grand total of zero games last season, but they might be counted on to show some development in 2022. Will they make the famous second-year leap and turn into contributors? The Patriots have to hope that they do because the linebacker group as a whole is rather unproven at the moment.

Is the group even set? New England is entering training camp week with six spots open on its 90-man roster which means that there is some potential to add to the linebacker group. Two names to watch are ex-Patriots Dont’a Hightower and Trey Flowers, who both remain unsigned in free agency. Flowers in particular would fill a need and give the team a proven starter on the edge — something it lacks outside of Matthew Judon.