The New England Patriots and linebacker Raekwon McMillan have reportedly reached an agreement on a new contract. While no additional details of the pact have been made public just yet, it will keep the 27-year-old from entering unrestricted free agency next week.
What else does the deal mean from a Patriots point of view? Let’s briefly find out.
New England keeps its linebacker foundation in place... With McMillan extended, the Patriots will have their top three off-the-ball linebackers from 2022 in the fold for another year. Sure, his own playing-time share (22.1%) was considerably smaller than Ja’Whaun Bentley’s (80.3%) and Jahlani Tavai’s (50.4%), for comparison, but he did offer experienced depth behind the two starters.
McMillan registered 32 tackles — including one fourth-down stop — and also had a sack and two quarterback pressures. He additionally recovered a fumble in Week 14 against Arizona and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown.
...but linebacker remains a need. Even with McMillan set to return for at least one more year, the Patriots are in the market for linebacker help in 2023. There are three primary reasons for that:
1.) McMillan will likely not develop into a major difference maker in his seventh year in the NFL and third with the Patriots. He does have value to the team, but appears to be more of a role player after struggling with consistency when he was given extended looks last year.
2.) The coverage linebacker spot is still a question mark. McMillan is better suited to drop back than Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai, but upgrading this position on the team should still be a priority based on the group’s overall performance in 2022.
3.) The long-term future at the position is still murky. Unless the Patriots just went all-in on McMillan — there is no indication of that — they have no real building-block linebackers on their team; Bentley and Tavai are both entering their age-27 season and are on short-term deals, with McMillan in a similar boat.
If the Patriots do want to make a bigger investment at linebacker they have the resources to do so. They are among the league-leaders in salary cap space, and own six draft selections in “roster-lock territory” (i.e. the first four rounds).
The Patriots lock up a core special teamer. McMillan’s most consistent playing time did not come on defense but in the kicking game. In fact, as a five-unit special teamer he played more snaps in the game’s third phase (277) than on the defensive side of the ball (250).
His prominent role will likely have helped him secure a new deal with the Patriots. It also gives the team some baseline stability with several other key special teamers — Cody Davis, Jabrill Peppers, Mack Wilson — uncertain to be back next season.
Speaking of Mack Wilson...
Mack Wilson’s chances of a return seemingly take a hit. To a certain degree, the Patriots evaluate players in a vacuum. However, it is hard not to connect the statuses of McMillan and fellow free agent Mack Wilson to one another.
Wilson, like McMillan, was a role player on defense who saw his most consistent action on special teams. They did not play the exact same role in 2022, but did offer a similar skillset and expertise. One therefore has to wonder whether the team has now made an either/or decision that will leave Wilson on the outside looking in.
Another of the team’s pending free agents will not hit the market. McMillan is the fourth unrestricted free agent to be brought back by the Patriots before the opening of the market next week. He is joining special teams captain Matthew Slater and offensive linemen Conor McDermott and James Ferentz in that category.
With those four re-signed and safety Devin McCourty retiring, New England has 16 free agents left.