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Uche Primed to Build on Breakout Season

Fourth-year edge player Josh Uche is hoping to build on his breakout '22 and cash in with a productive '23.

Patriots linebacker Josh Uche (55).
Patriots linebacker Josh Uche (55).

With Matthew Judon being a limited participant through the first two days of Patriots training camp, it's allowed fourth-year veteran Josh Uche the chance to see an increased workload. Even without pads, Uche's explosive athleticism has been on display, making life difficult for New England's tackles during the brief team drills that have taken place entirely inside the red zone.

Coming off a breakout 11.5-sack season in 2022 and entering the final year of his rookie deal like fellow 2020 draftee Kyle Dugger, the Michigan man is keeping his focus on the field and letting his work ethic lead the way as he tried to surpass his totals from last year.

Where can Uche improve?

"Everywhere," he said following Thursday's session. "You can always get better, you gotta learn until you die. Whenever you think you know everything, that's when it's over for yourself. Just trying to improve on every aspect of the game and just be the best player I can be."

"Uche is Uche," said teammate Mack Wilson during his own availability with the media. "What you saw last season was what you see now. Great guy, speed, can do everything. Definitely somebody I look up to even though he may be younger but he can play ball."

Judon's absence from team drills has put a spotlight on Uche and the edge depth behind him, with Anfernee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins seeing the majority of edge snaps when Uche isn't on the field. The pass rush impact provided by Judon and Uche is a key component of the team's defensive plans. The duo combined for 27 sacks in 2022, exactly half of New England's 54 total sacks that were good enough for third-best in the entire NFL.

Still, the defense has spots for improvement, starting with a 21st-overall finish on third down and a 22nd-overall finish inside the red zone. Despite a very good 11th overall in points allowed, the defense had its challenges, especially against some of the better teams in the league and in situations where they couldn't get the last needed stop, like against the Vikings and Raiders.

It was a good year, but still one where Uche learned some valuable lessons despite hitting his pass rush stride.

"Control the controllable," said Uche of what he took away from '22. "It doesn't matter what the scoreboard is, doesn't matter what play just happened before, if you focus on the moment and what you can control in the moment then you'll be all right. Brick by brick, moment by moment and you'll be where you want to be."

Where will Uche be in 2024 is a looming question. The 2020 draft class produced three contributing starters in Uche, Dugger and Michael Onwenu and without a sizable long-term core in place, extensions for these three players would make them part of the fabric of the team for a long time. It's something Uche acknowledged sounded appealing, to remain in New England.

"This is the team that took a chance on me when I know a lot of other teams didn't know what they could possibly do with me or what I was coming out of college," said Uche. "This was the team that developed me into the player I've become, this is the place I called home for the last four years and I'm comfortable. I know the area, I got family out here and I love it out here. I've been able to make myself at home and I would love to be here, but at the end of the day, I understand it's a business and business is business so there are no hard feelings."

2023 is shaping up to be a big one for Uche, as he can continue to expand his role after just scratching 38 percent of the defensive snaps last year. There are still early-down mountains to climb and even bigger strides to take.

No matter where he ends up landing next year, his approach remains unchanged.

"Wherever I'm wanted, wherever I'm needed, I just want to work," said Uche. "At the end of the day, this is a job. Growing up my father always put me to work on the weekends, yard work. All I know is working. Wherever it may be, God-willing it's here, I'm just gonna give it everything I got."

Deuce's Dime Package: Day 1 & 2 Defensive Takeaways

A few quick-hit thoughts centering around the defense through two training camp practices...

  1. Marcus Jones saw some first-team opportunities during team drills on Wednesday, showing tight coverage on DeVante Parker on a fade throw to the back of the end zone. Parker caught the pass but appeared to land out of bounds due to Jones' good coverage. Jones' quickness and sticky coverage ability were key to his college career. He's not the biggest guy and will always have the potential of facing a size mismatch, like last year against Mack Hollins, but his ability to play man-to-man should help him carve out a role. Wednesday offered a glimpse of how Jones might fit in as more than another potential slot corner.
  2. The safety position is a packed one, with Jalen Mills and Marte Mapu entering the picture but Josh Bledsoe got some high-level reps on Wednesday and continues to be an underrated part of the conversation. Now in his third season and still looking to carve out a defensive role, the next few weeks will be critical for Bledsoe, who similarly flashed some potential last preseason.
  3. After seeing time standing up as an outside linebacker in OTAs and minicamp, Keion White has been back in a more familiar role of hand-down defensive end during the team's first two training camp practices. White can truly shine once the pads come on and the one-on-one drills start happening, so far it's been difficult to tell exactly where he might fit in. White also flirted with one of the pass rush packages, as his size and power could offer intriguing options for Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo to play with alongside Christian Barmore.
  4. Another day, another pick for Kyle Dugger, although this one on Thursday was thrown right to him. Mac Jones dropped and started doing pushups almost as soon as the ball landed in Dugger's arms. Still, playmakers make plays and that's what Dugger's been doing in the early going, a very good sign.
  5. There have been some ups and downs for rookie first-rounder Christian Gonzalez through his first two training camp sessions. Of course, he looks athletic, but he also has shown comfort with the amount of communication that the defense does. Hunter Henry shook him for a touchdown on Wednesday, while DeVante Parker got the better of him on Thursday as the rookie continued to stack experience, good and bad. Despite losing those two particular battles Gonzalez looks like he fits right into the defense.
  6. Mack Wilson and Chris Board shouldn't be ignored when it comes to the off-the-ball linebacker group, but it's clear that Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai are going to be key pieces in the middle of the defense. Tavai showed an impressive duck underneath tackle Riley Reiff at one point during team drills and would've notched a sack off the edge. He has surprising athleticism for a guy his size.
  7. Rookie Isaiah Bolden hasn't gotten many opportunities at cornerback but showed some burst as a kickoff returner on Thursday. As I've written a bunch this offseason there are jobs to be had on special teams and Bolden is one of the players that looks very much in the mix.
  8. Ronnie Perkins has had a disappointing first two seasons but with limited depth at outside linebacker it seems like he has a good opportunity if he can seize it. With Matthew Judon departing the practice field during team drills, it's been on Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Perkins to man the edges. If he can make some pass rush noise he might just find a way to contribute. The defense seems an injury to Judon or Uche away from being in desperate need of someone else to step up and play at a high level. Tavai will factor into this spot as well.
  9. I've written plenty about Jabrill Peppers over the offseason and I continue to love the energy he brings to the defense. He's been playing all over the place and looks like he just might be the team's most well-rounded member of the talented group. He plays with an aggressive style that is a welcome addition to the defense and now fully healthy, it's exciting to imagine how he might impact the defense.
  10. Much of the defense looks similar to what it's been the last two seasons so far, for better or worse. The front is a veteran group but Keion White offers some potential, while the second level is really about Bentley and Tavai. The back end remains versatile and it seems like, at least in the red zone, they haven't missed Devin McCourty too much yet. That could change when full field work happens. The question is which young players can emerge and take the experienced group to the next level. So far, White and Marcus Jones are the only ones making an early push. Obviously, we'll learn a lot more once the pads come on early next week.

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