The rookie season brought a small sample size for Josh Uche. It also brought glimpses into why the New England Patriots traded up to No. 60 overall for the Michigan product in the 2020 NFL draft.
Those glimpses were seen despite stints on injured reserve at the end of September and at the end of December.
Uche appeared in nine games and made one start for New England between ankle and foot ailments. The linebacker notched nine tackles and turned a hesitation move into swipe for his first NFL sack against 2019 league MVP Lamar Jackson. But other rushes proved equally disruptive. And at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Uche got where he was going in a role that took more time to reach the field than opposing backfields.
Not unlike his stay with the Wolverines.
Uche hadn’t been utilized as an every-down player while in Ann Arbor. He checked into four games as a freshman and ten games as a sophomore before leading the program in sacks both as a junior and senior. The final season within defensive coordinator Don Brown’s 4-3 scheme included the initial nine starts of his collegiate career. It included just over half of the defensive snaps on the way to 8.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss, a pair of forced fumbles and second-team All-Big Ten recognition.
Michigan’s defensive MVP was on the way to New England by the night of April 24.
“Moved around the front a little bit,” former Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said of Uche midway through last year’s draft. “Played in the perimeter. They used him some at ‘Mike’ linebacker. Used him in some sub situations. He’s been asked to do a number of different things in a good defense. They played him at linebacker at the Senior Bowl. Has a variety of different things that it looks like he can do.”
Uche landed through a trade that saw Nos. 71 and 98 overall sent to the Baltimore Ravens and ultimately spent on Texas A&M defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison. The Patriots collected the rights to a fourth-rounder as part of the deal, as well, before packaging it to the New York Jets.
But Uche found himself the second pick in New England’s class. He arrived 23 slots after safety and fellow Senior Bowler Kyle Dugger from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne.
“The Patriots themselves are just very unique, very diverse, very dynamic and they do a bunch of different things, and I feel like that’s who I am as a football player,” Uche told reporters on his introductory Patriots call. “I just feel like it’s definitely a perfect fit.”
Uche largely served as a situational player upon making his debut in November. The 22-year-old aligned on the left and right sides of New England’s defensive line and moved off the ball for roughly a quarter of his workload. But the blend of bend, range and closing speed differentiated Uche’s athleticism from the rest of the depth chart. Down the stretch came a three-hit game against Los Angeles Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert that spanned a season-high 36 snaps.
In all, there were 99 snaps in pass rush to go with 40 snaps in pass coverage and 40 snaps in run defense for Uche, according to Pro Football Focus. He was credited for 14 total pressures on opposing quarterbacks over that span. And in terms of PFF’s pass-rush productivity, Uche ranked atop all rookie edge defenders who rushed on a minimum of 50 plays.
A dent was made.
“I think he’s done a lot of positive things for us in the kicking game and defensively,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said during a video conference in the final weeks of the 7-9 campaign. “Has some versatility. We were kind of trying to figure that out early, what his best spot would be, and it took a little while for all that to materialize. He was inactive part of the year, but he’s definitely going to help us. He’s a good football player and we’ll be able to define his role and his situation much better next year after a year of experience with him. So, looking forward to that. He’s definitely going to be an asset for us. And if he continues to work and improve, he’s got a good future.”
It is unclear whether that future will involve early downs and short yards after the return of captain Dont’a Hightower and the signings of Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy. But 365 days later, it is clear there’s room for what New England moved back into the second round to acquire.