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 84 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 third-year linebacker Josh Uche.
Name: Josh Uche
Position: Outside linebacker/Defensive edge/Move linebacker
Jersey number: 55
Opening day age: 23
Size: 6-foot-1, 245 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Uche entered the NFL off a successful college career at Michigan. Playing 39 games, he did not break out until his 2018 junior season. While he still served mostly as a rotational pass rusher for the Wolverines and their defensive coordinator, Don Brown, he managed to register 65.5 quarterback pressures — 15.5 sacks, 14 hits, 36 hurries — and led the team in sacks during both his junior and senior campaigns. He also forced two fumbles and had one recovery, setting himself up nicely for the draft.
Uche indeed heard his name called early and came off the board 60th overall in 2020. The Patriots, who had traded up in the second round to get him, have since used him primarily as a package-specific pass rusher. Appearing in 22 of a possible 34 regular season and playoff contests, he registered 21 tackles as well as four sacks and a fumble recovery. Uche was able to flash his talents on occasion but his pro career up until this point can best be summed up as a mix of inconsistency and injury.
What did his 2021 season look like? Uche showed plenty of promise during his rookie campaign, but injury issues did not allow him to sustain his momentum throughout the season. Nonetheless, he entered his sophomore year as a potential breakout candidate — a perspective that was only strengthened over the course of the summer: Uche was prominently featured as part of New England’s ferocious-looking pass rush in preseason and training camp and appeared to be in line for the famous second-year jump.
However, he never quite established himself as a starter-level player within the Patriots’ front seven. Medical issues, again, played a big role in this: he missed time due to a back injury early in the season, later dealt with a shoulder issue, and was eventually sent to temporary injured reserve in mid-November after hurting his ankle. After spending five weeks on IR, Uche was reactivated only to be moved to the Coronavirus reserve list three days later. He spent three days on the list, and did not miss any games.
Still, Uche had to sit out five of the Patriots’ 17 regular season games before appearing in the playoff loss in Buffalo. When all was said and done, his absences plus his role as a package-specific pass rusher who saw only limited action on early downs contributed to a relatively modest playing time share. Uche was on the field for 21.2 percent of New England’s defensive snaps (241 of 1,135); he also appeared in 6.3 percent of special teams snaps over the course of the 2021 season (29 of 464).
When on the field, the Michigan product again showed some flashes of his talents but was unable to make a consistent impact or carve out an every-down role. All in all, he registered 12 tackles — six each versus the run and the pass — as well as a combined eight quarterback disruptions: Uche notched three sacks and additionally had one hit and four hurries; he ranked third in QB takedowns, but had just the eighth most pressures on the team. He also surrendered three catches on three targets for 18 yards.
Uche’s best performances came against one of the worst opponents the team faced all year. In Week 2 against the New York Jets, he had two fourth-quarter sacks to help New England secure a 25-6 victory. Five weeks later, during a Week 7 blowout that ended 54-13 in the Patriots’ favor, Uche recovered the first fumble of his career. Those two games were promising, but overall his 2021 campaign was more of the same: he was unable to stay on the field and as a result failed to make a major impact.
What is his projected role? Uche served predominately as a package-specific edge rusher during his first two years in New England. Heading into 2022, the questions are a) whether the team will give him additional responsibilities and use him as a true every-down linebacker, and b) how prominently he will be featured within a front seven that parted ways with Kyle Van Noy and Chase Winovich this offseason. Based on the Patriots’ current edge personnel, Uche seeing a sharp increase in opportunities and maybe even take on a starting role opposite fellow outside linebacker Matthew Judon would not be surprising.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though Uche was used predominately as an edge rusher in 2020 and 2021, the Patriots also experimented with him in a different role on occasion: since he entered the league, 14 percent of his defensive snaps (59 of 420) came aligned inside the formation as an off-the-ball defender. Uche has the skillset to play on the line in the Patriots’ 5-1 looks as well as their 4-2 and 4-3 alignments and also move back if they run a more traditional 3-4 or 3-3. Furthermore, he also saw some snaps versus the run and even was asked to drop back into coverage from time to time.
What is his special teams value? Uche has seen a bit of irregular special teams action during his first two seasons in New England. Last year, the Patriots used him as a pressure player on punt return teams (11 snaps) and a front line blocker on the kickoff return unit (9). They also employed him on the field goal and extra point blocking squad (9). Heading into 2022, Uche should therefore expect to see a few snaps on special teams again even though his defensive role will impact his eventual kicking game workload.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the third year of his rookie contract, Uche takes up $1.47 million of New England’s salary cap. This number is created via addition of his $1.1 million salary and his fully-guaranteed $369,879 signing bonus proration. In case the Patriots decide to release or trade Uche, that proration would remain on their books as dead cap; only his salary can be shed by parting ways with him.
How safe is his roster spot? Uche’s first two seasons in the NFL might have been relatively quiet affairs, but the Patriots do not seem willing to give up on their former second-round investment just yet — quite the opposite. If statements by head coach Bill Belichick and linebackers coach Steve Belichick are to be believed, he will play a prominent role for the team in 2022. Obviously, only time will be able to verify those statements but Uche’s spot on the roster still appears to be quite safe heading into his third campaign as a pro.
One-sentence projection: If Uche can stay healthy for most of the season and pre-season preparation, he will earn a starting spot along the defensive edge and end the season as one of the team’s leaders in sacks.