The Patriots showcased a notable collection of new faces on the defensive side of the ball during OTAs. It was especially apparent on the second level, where the absences of Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy left sizable voids that brought back memories of the COVID-hobbled 2020 season.
Now, in 2022, the opportunity is ripe for some of the young linebackers to step up and become the next generation of playmakers, starting with 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche and 2021 third-round pick Ronnie Perkins, both of whom were active on the field during Tuesday's session.
"It's a blessing just to be back, another opportunity to get better and just embrace it and have fun with it," said Uche following the practice. Uche played 12 games in 2021, logging three sacks primarily in a passing-down role, but once again this spring, Uche's versatility has intrigued though his role in practice often seems far more vast than any role we've seen him play in a game.
The third-year linebacker earned praise from coach Bill Belichick last month, who said he agreed with his son Steve in his assessment that Uche would be a big part of the defense this season. "I think he is a big piece of our defense," said the head coach, adding. "We'll see exactly what he turns out to be."
"Whatever coach needs me to do I'm going to do it to the best of my ability," said Uche when asked about the role he was carving out. "Whether it be special teams, defense, whatever it is, I'm gonna do my best. Whatever it takes to help the team win."
Perkins had a similar rookie season to Uche in that he didn't make much of an impact. A hand-down pass-rushing defensive end at Oklahoma, Perkins is now a full year into the transition to linebacker, which includes a lot more playing on his feet, going in multiple directions.
"I've been focused on coming in this year ready, coming in stronger, coming in in shape, ready to help the team however I can," said Perkins who battled through a number of injury problems last season. Now he appears fully healthy and ready to seize the opportunity that is in front of him.
"It's definitely sad to see those guys go, Jamie, KVN, High but it also tells us it's time to step up," said Perkins. "We can't lean on those older guys anymore, it's time to step into their shoes."
On a defense desperate for some new young playmakers to come to the forefront, Uche and Perkins are prime candidates, but there's a long road ahead through training camp in August. Uche repeated a familiar refrain when it came to how the young linebackers can actually take those big steps.
"I think we just come in every day and work as hard as we can and whatever the coaches feel is best, they're going to do that," said Uche. "So, just keep our heads down and grind."