Back in 2016, the Patriots had a second-year defender burst onto the scene. He became one of the best players on Bill Belichick's roster and a key contributor to their Super Bowl run that season.
Trey Flowers, a fourth-round pick in 2015, came out of nowhere after missing time due to injury as a rookie. But he had physical gifts -- his length, his power at the point of attack -- that allowed him to thrive once he got onto the field on a consistent basis.
If there's a player who has a chance to follow that track this year, it's another second-year edge defender who missed time hurt as a rookie. Josh Uche is about to open eyes in training camp and, like Flowers in 2016, his physical gifts could vault him into consideration as one of the sport's best young pass-rushers by the time 2021 is up. If all goes well, maybe he even earns some Pro Bowl consideration.
Uche (6-1, 245) is a far different type of player when compared to Flowers (6-2, 265), though both are considered pass rushers. Uche is lighter, quicker, and he has the flexibility to take advantage of small openings in protection schemes to disrupt opposing quarterbacks. He's a better fit in a 3-4 scheme as an outside linebacker than would be Flowers, who was suited more for the Patriots defense back when they were more of a 4-3 scheme under Matt Patricia.
Uche didn't miss the entirety of his rookie season, as Flowers essentially did (Flowers played four snaps as a rookie). And in the weeks Uche was available, he consistently flashed as a pass-rusher even though he notched just one sack. From Week 8 through Week 16, he was third in the NFL among all edge rushers in pass-rush win rate, according to Pro Football Focus. No. 1 was Joey Bosa of the Chargers. No. 2 was Samson Ebukam of the Rams. Then Uche. TJ Watt of the Steelers, one of the top pass-rushers in the game, was fifth.
Pretty good company.
Uche was viewed as a tremendous athlete leaving the University of Michigan in 2020, and had he not been injured at that year's Senior Bowl -- which would've allowed him to test at the combine -- he likely would've been drafted earlier than No. 60 overall in the second round where the Patriots got him.
Showing great burst off the line of scrimmage, Uche garnered plenty of attention during this year's minicamp. Granted, that was during the time of year when pads were put away so it's hard to discern truly how impactful he was. Still, between his athleticism and his under-the-radar performance last year, there's reason for optimism that he'll experience significant improvement with a full professional offseason under his belt.
Plus, Belichick seems to like him quite a bit.
"I think he’s done a lot of positive things for us in the kicking game and defensively has some versatility," Belichick said back in December. "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’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, I’m 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."
Based on what we saw in minicamp, it appears as though the Patriots would like to focus Uche's efforts on the edge. He has the ability to play off the ball as well, as he did for former Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown at times, but the arrival of Kyle Van Noy (who could play on the line and off) may make the best combination of Patriots linebackers Uche and Matt Judon on the edge with Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower inside.
If Uche is out there with those presumed starters, if he can continue to grow into a role that highlights his physical gifts, he'll have a shot to produce the kinds of numbers that will garner attention -- especially in a blitz-heavy scheme that should provide him his fair share of one-on-one matchups.
Who knows if he'll ever make a Pro Bowl. Flowers, for instance, still hasn't. But Uche could be the next under-the-radar second-year edge defender to make a seismic impact in Foxboro. He'll have a chance to start down that path this week as training camp kicks off on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.