With the return of Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, along with the free agency addition of Matt Judon, the Patriots' linebacker corps will have a new but familiar look in 2021, but despite those veterans two of the Patriots developing youngsters should still have a big impact this season, especially rushing the passer.
"I'm excited every day, I get to come in with these guys, a great group of guys," said Josh Uche after practice on Friday. "It's always fun, always a lot of energy. And just when we're out there it's dynamic. You can rely on guys, you can trust guys to do their job. I look forward to coming to work every day, there's always something new, there's always a way to get better."
For Uche, he's been a consistent terror for quarterbacks this summer, standing out during the second joint practice against the Giants with what would've been multiple sacks. Throughout training camp, Uche has often been in the backfield, offering small glimpses of what could be coming this fall.
Uche had a unique skill set when he was drafted in the second round last year, with a combination of strength and speed around the edge that started to show up in the nine games he was able to play in 2020. The only big question was how exactly he might fit into an NFL defense. Now, Uche is carving out a role for himself and looks ready to put it all together and make a second-year jump with the help of the vets around him.
"You can learn something from each of those guys every day," said Uche of the veterans in his room. "To have such a high level of guys and a high amount of guys who do things very well, it just allows me to cherry-pick a little bit, adding things into my game."
"There's little tiny tidbits of things that I can learn, not only from people on our team, just daily contributions whether in the film room or what I'm seeing in the film room," said Chase Winovich, who listed off a number of NFL pass rushers that he's studied including Von Miller and Jadeveon Clowney. "I try to be a sponge."
Winovich played all 16 games in 2020, leading the team by matching his 2019 total of 5.5 sacks while playing 58 percent of the defensive snaps and 48 percent of the special teams snaps. He also notched his first interception, showing development in his all-around ability.
After starting training camp on the PUP list, Winovich has shown up over the last weeks of training camp, including a strong performance against the Eagles with two sacks and a tackle-for-loss. His relentless effort will always be an asset, especially when it comes to getting after the passer.
"He's a great player otherwise he wouldn't be on our team," said Winovich of Uche. "It's awesome working with Josh, he comes out gives it what he can and it's been fun."
While the veterans are proven contributors, Uche and Winovich still have a degree of unknown promise. Both are high-energy pass rushers who should bring fresh legs and non-stop motors that can take some of the pressure off of Hightower, Van Noy and Judon to do all the edge setting and pass rushing.
"You've got to develop a mean streak, if you will," said Uche. "That's the mentality I took with me all the way till now. When you step on the field you've gotta flip that switch, turn up the intensity, play with some passion. That's kind of how I go."
5 Training Camp Takeaways
- How improved is Newton? - Both quarterbacks had solid training camps, though both Cam Newton and Mac Jones are in completely different places. Newton improved in the offense since last season, looking more comfortable in knowing where to go with the football and getting it there on time. It wasn't always consistent and the missed days hurt, but it would appear Newton can run the offense more proficiently now. However, aside from limited appearances in preseason games and some extended work against the Eagles in joint practices, it's still anyone's guess how well Newton can string it all together in a full game. Will he get any time against the Giants? A full half even? Or were his limited reps this summer enough to convince the head coach he gives the team the best chance to beat the Dolphins in just over two weeks?
- When will the future arrive? - Unlike Newton's limited appearances, Jones got a ton of work this summer and the rookie showed continuous improvement over the course of camp. In each session, Jones seemed to exhibit growing confidence as the strides he's made since arriving in early May have been outstanding, with the culmination being the first joint practice against the Giants. Now, the question is when does Jones get his chance? Only the coaching staff truly knows how ready the first-rounder is at this point. There's no question, he'll get his shot at some point and there's plenty for Patriots fans to be excited about, but it will be hard to stay patient. The bottom line -- the Patriots got pretty solid quarterback play this summer and whether it's Newton or Jones, there's uncertainty at the position until they start delivering under regular-season fire.
- When will Gilmore return? - From a remade defensive front to a well-balanced group of safeties, there's plenty of intrigue for the defense this season, however, as currently constituted, the cornerback group doesn't have much proven depth, at least until Stephon Gilmore returns. Make no mistake, J.C. Jackson has had a great camp, but until Gilmore gets back, a lot is riding on Jalen Mills and JoeJuan Williams.
- Ground and pound - Yes, there are questions about the quarterback position, but there isn't much question the offensive line, running backs and tight ends will give whoever the signal-caller is a nice crutch to lean on with the running game. All eyes are on Damien Harris after the team traded Sony Michel away. Harris' potential has always been there and now the opportunity is here. James White has looked resurgent late in training camp. Add in Rhamondre Stevenson and the Pats should be able to move the ball on the ground against anyone. J.J. Taylor can likely seal a roster spot with another strong performance on Sunday.
- Special teams turnover? - Few teams, if any, value special teams more than the Patriots, and it looks like they'll enter 2021 with a similar group of specialists. But will the old reliable veterans keep their roles? Or is it time to turn some of those roles over to younger, less-proven players? Special teams is where the toughest roster decisions will come, but it's still a good bet that the Pats will make plenty of game-changing plays this season with their kick and return units like they always do.
Practice access shifted on Friday to more of a regular-season format, with reporters only getting a brief glimpse at the team during stretching. After leaving practice on Thursday, Jonathan Jones was in attendance, however, David Andrews was not. Andrews was joined by Gunner Olszewski and Anfernee Jennings as new absences, though Jennings has been in and out of practice in recent weeks. Justin Bethel also returned to practice.
Others not spotted include PUP members Stephon Gilmore, Byron Cowart and Terez Hall, NFI members Joshuah Bledsoe and Cameron McGrone, as well as N'Keal Harry, Matt LaCosse, and Kahale Warring. Red jerseys were worn by Hunter Henry, Myles Bryant, Brandon Bolden and new addition Shaun Wade.