As the Patriots season winds down, a highly anticipated offseason awaits where the team needs to make several significant decisions to improve the roster.
Along with having a projected top-three selection in the 2024 NFL Draft, New England has 15 in-house free agents whose futures are up in the air next offseason. Among those unrestricted free agents are four members of the 2020 draft class, a class that was a step forward after a multi-year drought in acquiring rookie talent.
New England selected four contributors: starting safety Kyle Dugger, edge rusher Josh Uche, run-stopper Anfernee Jennings, and starting right tackle Mike Onwenu. After struggling in the draft, it was a good haul for the Patriots, but all four players are now up for second contracts.
As we preview the 2024 free agency class, second-round pick Josh Uche spoke with Patriots.com this week about his future with the team.
After logging a career-high 11.5 sacks last season, glancing at the box score would suggest Uche has taken a step back in 2023, with only two sacks in 12 games. However, that doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. According to the advanced metrics and film, Uche has disrupted opposing quarterbacks at a similar rate as his breakout third season. Uche's pass-rush win rate this season (12.2%) is nearly identical to last season (12.8%).
There's always context to sack totals. For example, Uche's season was slightly derailed by injury. The equation also changed for the Patriots pass rushers without Pro Bowl linebacker Matthew Judon in the lineup and New England protecting fewer leads where pass-rushers can really go to work. Uche is now a focal point for opposing offensive lines sans Judon, who would also help push opposing quarterbacks in Uche's direction.
"When it comes down to sacks and pressures and all that, I feel like what I put on film is most important. What coaches are seeing, what other players are seeing, and what people are actually seeing is more important than the overall outcome. Sometimes, the sacks, it takes perfect timing and everything to play out perfectly, and that's not always the case. All you can do is just keep going. Just trying to put out good film," Uche explained.
As for playing without Judon on the other side, Uche acknowledged that it's been an adjustment.
"That's a Pro Bowler, All-Pro player on the other side. He's a big part of our defense, a big part of our team. Not having him out there definitely affects the scheme, affects a lot of things. Of course, we miss Judon out there, so all we can do is next man up mentality," Uche added.
Following his foot and ankle injuries earlier this season, Uche told me he is still working his way back into form.
"There are still some things I need to work on. But I'm definitely getting back there slowly. We've got a couple of games left, but I'll say I'm better than where I was a couple of weeks ago. Still got some things to work on getting back in the weight room," Uche said. "Everybody's working through things. So, it's not an excuse whatsoever. I just got to make it work."
An offseason emphasis for Uche was rounding out his game against the run. During his Patriots career, Uche has been a situational pass-rusher, playing 37.8% of the defensive snaps during his career year in 2022. Uche has flashed improvements as a run defender in his fourth season. He is also emphasizing a more disciplined rush approach to stay level and keep the quarterback in the pocket, which factors into his sack regression as well.
"This [training] camp, I tried to make it my mission to show my coaches that that's something I can do, that I want to do, that I want to play within the structure of the defense," Uche said. "I did everything I could in camp. At the end of the day, all I can do is do my job and the role they have for me. If it's third down, I'll do my best to be the best third-down player I can be. If they need me to set the edge, I'll do my best to set the edge and play the run. All I can do is give it everything I got."
Although he's focused on the final three games this season, Uche's pending free agency will quickly become a priority for the team and player. Ultimately, both sides need to come to an agreement, with Uche speaking with the team at points this season about his expiring contract. Uche's name was also hot in trade deadline rumors, with reports indicating the Patriots were close to dealing the pass rusher.
"Free agency, I really don't know what to expect. This is my first time going through it. Whoever wants me, wants me, and I want to go where I'm wanted," Uche began. "I feel like the team plays everything close to the vest. From my conversation with Coach [Belichick], that's what it's looking like [that the Patriots would like to retain him]. But, again, words are words. At the end of the day, it comes down to actions."
From a team perspective, the Patriots will likely approach Uche's free agency with their defensive scheme in mind. Assuming they're still running a Belichick-style defense, Uche's skillset doesn't lend itself to a high-volume role. Despite an injury to Judon, Uche has only played 34.1% of the defensive snaps, with the coaches viewing him as a passing downs-only role player. This season, Uche has played 64.1% of his snaps on third down.
Given the need for others to step into more prominent roles without Mr. Red Sleeves, it's surprising that Uche's playing time stayed the same. Instead, many of Judon's snaps went to fellow fourth-year linebacker Anfernee Jennings, who is stouter against the run.
Uche could look at his situation in the Patriots defense similarly. Suppose a team prioritizing pass rush and speed off the edge came calling in March, then Uche could see an opportunity to play more snaps while showcasing his explosiveness to make plays in the backfield.
Although he has proven to be an impactful player, the combination of scheme fit and a potentially robust free-agent market makes the long-term outlook for Uche in New England murky.