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Analysis: Belichick may be putting faith in returning LBs

The Patriots haven't used much draft capital on defense but Bill Belichick may have his eye on players already on the roster to improve on that side of the ball.

2022-Draft-Temp

The Patriots limped to the finish line in 2021, losing four of their final five games including the playoff loss in Buffalo that ended the season. Among those four defeats were two dismal defensive efforts against the Bills where New England was unable to force a single punt.

Due to those late-season struggles, many felt Bill Belichick would work hard to add some speed and athleticism to the ranks to prevent a repeat in 2022. Then the first two rounds of the draft came and went without a single defensive player being chosen, waiting until Round 3 to take Houston cornerback/return man Marcus Jones. That left New England's defense with lots of question marks at all three levels.

The Patriots had problems stopping the run a year ago, ranking among the bottom 10 in that category. They also struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks, particularly Buffalo's Josh Allen, who lit them up twice with both his arm and legs in those aforementioned defeats. In addition, the Patriots lost cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson, leaving a void in the secondary.

Still, Belichick used his first two picks on offense, taking guard Cole Strange and wide receiver Tyquan Thornton. He did that despite the presence of several quality defensive players being available in the area where the Patriots picked. In the first round Trent McDuffie, Quay Walker, Jermaine Johnson and Devin Lloyd all were selected between picks 21 and 29, where Belichick traded down to in order to take Strange.

In the second round Belichick chose to move up from 54 to 50 thanks to a trade with Kansas City. He chose Thornton instead of opting for help on defense. Montana State linebacker Troy Anderson (58), Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (60) and edge players Drake Jackson (61) from USC and Nik Bonitto (64) from Oklahoma were all available.

But before we panic over the lack of apparent help on the defensive side of the ball, let's take a look at some of the options Belichick has on his current roster that he may have more faith in than any of these rookies. Specifically, there's a corps of young linebackers who are unproven who could very well be poised to step into significant roles in 2022.

Josh Uche, Cameron McGrone, Ronnie Perkins, Raekwon McMillan and Anfernee Jennings haven't played much – or in McMillan's case not at all – but it's time to see what they can do. All but McMillan were drafted over the last three years and Belichick has spent time working with them in practice, watching them develop and may feel they're ready to go.

Uche has the most playing experience of the group and he could be a factor as a pass rusher with an expanded role. Perkins spent most of his rookie season on the sidelines dealing with injuries, but he projects as an option on the edge as well. Jennings has the bulk to be an edge setter but has yet to stay healthy and establish a role for himself. McGrone entered the league coming off a torn ACL and 2021 amounted to a redshirt year for the Michigan product while McMillan, who signed with the Patriots last season as a free agent, also is coming off a torn ACL.

This group needs to provide some playmaking ability to the middle of the defense, and based on Belichick's decision to overlook that area in the first two days of the draft, it's possible he believes that will be the case. Uche projects as the most likely candidate to make an impact but clearly the coaches have at least some level of expectation for the group, otherwise there would have been more of an effort to address the spot in the draft.

The Patriots still have seven picks to work with on Saturday, three in the fourth (the last thanks to a trade with Carolina that also netted a 2023 third-rounder), three in the sixth and one in the seventh. Certainly some of those will be spent on defensive players, but in terms of significant pieces for the 2022 defense, the answers may already be in place.

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