Steve Belichick says Patriots LB Josh Uche is ‘an important piece to the puzzle’

After training camp in 2021, Josh Uche’s breakout game seemed inevitable. The speedy, pass-rushing linebacker flew around the field in practices and was a disruptive presence off the edge. He looked, at times, like a worthy counterpart to outside linebacker Matthew Judon.

And yet Uche never played more than 48% of defensive snaps in any one game and finished the year taking the field for just 22% of the team’s defensive snaps. The breakout game never came. He had 12 tackles and three sacks. It wasn’t the second-year leap that many anticipated.

He has a massive opportunity in 2022, however. With the Patriots trimming away their veteran linebackers like Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Can Noy, New England figures to ask more of Uche.

“I see him (as) part of the blueprint, and I see him being an important piece to the puzzle for us going forward,” Patriots outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of other factors to it besides just what he’s going to do. We’ve got to see what everybody else does and work the pieces around from there, but I see Josh being a big part of this defense.”

To some degree, the Patriots didn’t give Uche a path to the field with the signings of Matthew Judon and the return of Van Noy and Collins. But at the same time, the team might not have considered those additions in 2021 if Uche had developed at a more accelerated pace. Either way, Uche was a 2020 second-round pick and figures to be in the prove-it phase of his career. There’s a void of snaps and leadership in that linebacker group.

“You also miss the presence of a guy like Hightower, Kyle, Jamie. They’ve played a lot of football for us,” Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said. “With that being said, I would say this group — they bring a lot of energy to the table. They bring a lot of energy to the classroom. We all miss those guys but at the same time, we have to move on.”

Uche has no one in front of him on the roster. He needs to make good on his draft status and immense potential. He needs to convert it all into production.

Cole Strange already showcasing his elite athleticism during Patriots’ offseason workouts

The New England Patriots selecting Chattanooga guard Cole Strange in the first round of last month’s draft did come as a surprise to fans and analysts alike. After all, he was projected as a third-round selection by a majority of pundits.

That said, Strange was not as high an overdraft as it seems. Not only does it seem the NFL was much higher on him than those outside the league, the 23-year-old also brought some legitimate first-round traits to the table: his athletic profile is nothing short of elite.

The Patriots caught a first glimpse of it last weekend. Strange was among the participants in the team’s rookie minicamp, and he left a positive first impression on one of his positional coaches.

“We had the guys in this weekend for rookie minicamp,” Matt Patricia said during a media conference call on Tuesday. “You get to see them on the field, but you’re also looking at them compared to other guys that are just walking in the building for the first time. [On Monday], we get into the skills portion of what we can do in Phase 2, and now you can get them mixed in with the veteran guys.

“And I think from that aspect of it, you can see his athleticism. You can see it match up with the guys that are vets or have been here, or have been in the NFL, which is really good. All of those are things that we saw and things that we like, but he’s got a long way to go.

Using Kent Lee Platte’s Relative Athletic Score as a point of reference, Strange is one of the most athletic guards to enter the league in the last 35 years. Since 1987, only six other players at the position have posted a higher RAS than the Patriots’ first-round investment:

Of course, athleticism alone does not make a football player. Patricia basically said so himself on Tuesday when he pointed out that Strange and the rest of New England’s rookies still have ways to go before getting to the same level as their more experienced teammates.

“The other part about putting him out with the veterans, guys that have been here, is you just realize how further along those veterans are. How long they’ve actually just from this year been working towards getting ready for football,” he said.

“What happens with the college guys is they come out and they’re really trying to get ready for a pro day or a combine or something like that, not necessarily football skills. And that’s the part that we’ve really got to keep pushing to catch up with.”

Strange was selected 29th overall by the Patriots. With both Ted Karras and Shaq Mason having left the team this offseason, he projects as a starter along the interior offensive line.

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