Rookie Spotlight: New England Patriots LB Josh Uche

By: Cory Ezring | @CoryEzring

With the 60th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots select, Josh Uche, EDGE rusher out of Michigan.

Senior starters from big-name programs do not often fly under the radar as draft prospects during the college football season. In many ways, though, Michigan’s hybrid linebacker and pass-rusher Josh Uche was not a widely-recognized name at the start of the 2020 draft process. In an edge rusher position group that was considered to have a steep dropoff in talent after players such as Chase Young of Ohio State, K’Lavon Chaisson of LSU, Yetur Gross-Matos of Penn State and A.J. Epenesa of Iowa, Uche was rarely mentioned in the early-round conversation. With that being said, the pre-draft process has various opportunities for lesser-known players to distinguish themselves. The Wolverines’ defensive chess piece was able to capitalize on these chances and boost his draft stock as the pre-draft process progressed. Once a lesser-known prospect, Uche’s impressive performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine put him firmly into the first-round conversation. 

By the time the 2020 NFL Draft had arrived, the hype that the Michigan pass-rusher had gained at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine was still present in media coverage. After the first of three days of the draft, only two edge rushers were off the board. Young, the near-consensus top player in the draft, was taken with the second overall pick by the Washington Football Team. The Jacksonville Jaguars took Chaisson 18 picks later with the 20th selection. 

The second round of the draft, however, saw more pass rushers hear their names called. Gross-Matos was the first edge rusher selected on day two with the Carolina Panthers’ 38th pick. The Seattle Seahawks then took Tennessee’s Darrell Taylor with the 48th selection. Six picks later, the Buffalo Bills took Epenesa. Near the end of the second round, the New England Patriots ended Uche’s wait with the 60th selection of the 2020 NFL Draft. 

In his time at Michigan, the Patriots’ second-round pick stood out as a result of his versatility and athleticism. These traits were also Uche’s strongest calling cards as an NFL prospect. The Michigan product projected favorably as a SAM linebacker in an under front at the NFL level thanks to his experience both as a pass rusher and in coverage. 

The young linebacker’s combination of length, burst, speed, lateral agility, bend, and raw power made him a threat any time he attacked the line of scrimmage. Uche’s first step off the snap was electric and was complemented by his excellent speed and bend to work the edge. He sometimes employed a dangerous swipe or side-scissor move before dipping below the offensive tackle’s reach and flattening to the quarterback. 

The Wolverine also had enough power to exploit a lineman’s overcompensation for his speed. Uche had a surprisingly-strong bench press move to displace tackles at the point of attack. Moreover, he used his long arms – 33 ⅝” – to convert speed to power at a high level. Uche was even able to walk back 2020 first-round pick Tristan Wirfs at times. 

What made the Senior Bowl standout so intriguing as a draft prospect, though, was his coverage ability. Uche was an excellent athlete in space. The young linebacker was able to fluidly change direction or turn and run with tight ends, running backs, and some receivers; similarly, Uche displayed impressive click and close speed to meet the ball at the catch point. His straight-line speed is very impressive for someone of his size, which allowed him to operate at times in deep zones. 

Finally, the unique defender performed at a high level against talented opponents. Playing in the Big Ten, Uche consistently faced and thrived against some of the best players at the college level; what’s more, he excelled in his time in Mobile at the Senior Bowl against some of the top senior draft prospects in the 2020 class. While Uche’s athleticism distinguished him from the rest of the edge class both as a pass rusher and in coverage, there were issues on his film that he needed to improve upon to reach his full potential. 

Although he boasted excellent athleticism and the versatility to be a defensive chess piece, the Michigan product had several traits and tendencies that threatened to limit his impact in the NFL. First and foremost, there were concerns about Uche’s position at the professional level. Specifically, his 6’1” frame is far shorter than the average edge rusher or linebacker. While Uche’s very long arms helped negate this issue, the concerns were still there. 

What’s more, the Michigan pass rusher needed to develop his technique to succeed against professional athletes. Uche did not use his hands often; when he did, he exhibited generally inaccurate hands and a limited arsenal of pass rush moves. In other words, he needed to learn to complement and capitalize on his rare athleticism. 

Similarly, the young linebacker too often failed to identify his chance for an inside power move. His speed frequently forced opposing offensive linemen to present a soft inside shoulder, a vulnerable spot when attacked; however, the Wolverines’ talented defender preferred to attack the outside shoulder. In doing so, he looked past costly mistakes by linemen as a result of his limited pass-rush plan. 

In addition to these nuanced issues, the Patriots’ second-round rookie struggled at times against the run. His long arms are undeniably an asset in this area, but Uche was too easily moved by opposing offensive linemen. 

These limitations to his play, while of note, are mostly coachable. Uche was selected with an early-round pick for a reason; he is a unique athlete who can change an NFL defense with his versatility. 

So far in his young NFL career, the former second-round pick has performed well in limited playing time. Although he played zero snaps through the first seven weeks of the season, Uche played in Week Eight and has appeared in every game since. In that small sample size, the rookie out of Michigan has been statistically unspectacular. 

His film, though, tells a different story. 

From Week Ten to Week 14, the rookie made impact plays at a high rate. The concerns with Uche’s game leading up to the draft were valid and have carried over to his performance in the NFL; however, his athleticism and versatility make him one of the more promising rookies from the 2020 NFL Draft class. 

Despite a limited role through the majority of his rookie season, the Patriots’ second-round rookie has consistently stood out on the field. 

The former Michigan Wolverine’s twitchy and fluid movement skills are rare for a player of his size, even at the NFL level. From his rookie year film, it is clear that Uche’s dip and rip move is a dangerous weapon in the NFL, as his incredible flexibility allows him to reduce blockable surface area and work under a blocker’s reach. Similarly, the budding NFL defender is still capable of performing power moves and converting speed to power thanks, in part, to his length and use of leverage. 

More importantly, the Michigan product has already taken technical steps to improve as a pass rusher. Specifically, Uche has used head fakes, jab steps, and body language when approaching the point of engagement to force linemen to take false steps. These mistakes by offensive tackles allow the rookie pass-rusher to use his burst, quickness, and bend to beat his opponents up the arc. These fakes are only improved by the second-round pick’s newfound willingness to attack the inside shoulder. This variety in his pass rush improves the efficacy of both Uche’s speed rushes to the outside and his power rushes to the inside. 

What’s more, the former Wolverine’s ability in coverage has proven to be an asset for New England. While most of his snaps are spent rushing the passer, Uche has consistently shown impressive zone awareness and the movement skills to capitalize on his instincts. The Michigan product has also served as a valuable defensive piece against mobile quarterbacks, as he generally has the athleticism and length to contain or spy them. To this point in his career, Uche has shown that he is a capable NFL defender worthy of a starting job; but, he still has room to grow. 

Although his play so far has been impressive, the former Wolverine still has various areas in which he must improve before he can take the next step as an NFL defender. The Michigan product has been inconsistent from play to play as a result of some of the same technical issues that plagued him in college. For example, Uche still struggles with accuracy and variety in his hand moves as a pass rusher. The second-round pick has shown that he knows to use his hands and that he even knows how to use his hands; the next step is to use them more consistently to improve the impact his excellent physical tools can have. 

What’s more, the young linebacker still fails to enter plays with a plan of attack. He does not capitalize on offensive tackles’ soft inside shoulders that they present in preparation for his speed rush to the outside. 

Similarly, the rookie still does not seem to fully comprehend his own abilities and strengths. At times, Uche ostensibly prefers power rush moves into full-man relationships with blockers rather than his bendy speed rush to the outside. 

In addition, the Michigan product’s underwhelming anchor against the run has carried over from his time in college. He has the length and power behind his hands to stack and shed blockers at times, but above-average linemen are typically able to displace him at the point of attack. 

Most of these issues can and will be fixed with experience and NFL coaching, but they currently limit his impact on any given snap. That being said, Uche has an extremely bright future in the NFL. 

Based on his performance through Week 14, the once-under appreciated prospect who had to prove his ability at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine has the chance to distinguish himself in a talented rookie class. Uche’s athleticism has translated seamlessly to the professional level. Moreover, he has already begun to improve technically to further capitalize on his physical traits. That being said, the former Wolverine still needs to improve certain aspects of his play to serve an every-down role moving forward. Despite the issues on his film, the Michigan product has already shown that he has considerable potential and should be an exciting player to watch moving forward as he gains more in-game experience and learns from professional coaches. With his athleticism, versatility, and motor, Uche’s ceiling in the NFL is that of a defensive playmaker and a star. 

For a more in-depth read on his strengths and weaknesses in college, below you can read my 2020 NFL Draft scouting report on Josh Uche based on his play at Michigan:

STRENGTHS

Had a great week at the Senior Bowl, where he played as both a linebacker and an edge rusher. Projects well as a good under front SAM linebacker at the next level in mixed coverage/pass rusher duties. Measured in at the NFL Combine with 33 5/8″ arms. Has some experience as an off-ball linebacker. Used quite a bit as a QB spy and even has some experience working in the slot in underneath zone and flats coverage. He is even used in deep zones and has flashed an ability to play well in that role. 

Seems to play good assignment football. Solid ability to diagnose plays and has very good click and close speed. Good ability to find the ball through traffic. Brings a lot of effort off the edge or in coverage. 

When working at the second level of the defense, has sideline-to-sideline range. Great closing speed when coming downhill to make a tackle. Has very good lateral burst where he almost looks like he picks up speed when going sideways. Very good change of direction ability. 

Very explosive athlete when coming off the edge. Has nice burst off the line and excellent bend around the edge. Has the awareness to get low – below blockers’ arms – to reduce blockable surface area. He can get insanely low through contact while maintaining his balance and impacting/getting a hand on the quarterback. Has a pretty good swipe move when working as a high side rusher to complement his lateral agility, burst, and bend. Excellent downhill speed when coming into the pocket as an interior blitzer untouched. Has the kind of speed off the edge that scares tackles; tackles jump to so quickly to get vertical and present a soft shoulder – if he knew to counter inside he would embarrass them. 

Uses his length to straight arm/long arm blockers. Can get to the quarterback through contact if he has established a half-man relationship, mostly because of his very long arms. 

Despite his smaller frame, he is a powerful athlete. Has good initial power with his punch and with his bull rush, not sure it is the most consistent but it is a valuable tool to have in his back pocket. Has good balance through contact. Has good leg drive through contact when working on the edge. With some build-up and a runway, he uses his long arms to aid an already impressive speed to power move after lulling linemen to sleep with consistent speed rushes – drove Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson (Iowa, 2019) back very well. 

Has very clean movement skills in space/in coverage. Has a bit of experience in man coverage against tight ends. Willing to be physical in man coverage within the contact window. Reads the quarterback well in zone coverage and has good reaction time. Has long arms to get his hands into passing lanes. 

Very sound run defender in terms of tackling and forcing the ballcarrier to work inside. Stays home against the run, which keeps him in a good position to force the ballcarrier inside rather than allowing the ballcarrier to break outside. Has shown the ability to bring some powerful hands to bench press tackles to establish himself in the gap in run defense. 

Sound tackler in space who plays the outside leg against the run. Wraps up well with his long arms and brings ballcarriers to the ground. Shows the ability to chase down ballcarriers and make tackles due to his speed and naturally sound tackling ability. 

WEAKNESSES

Needs to have more of a pass rush plan; if his initial bendy high side rush or his speed-to-power don’t work, he is essentially a non-factor in the play. Want to see him take advantage of overcommitting tackles by countering inside or with speed-to-power. Does not bring very much variety to his rushes with hand usage or pass rush variety so he is a bit predictable at the moment. There are times where he will work too far downfield in his pass rush and, consequently, allow the quarterback to step up and through to gain yards on the ground. 

Hardly employs his hands. Want to see more accuracy with his hands to complement his quickness, speed, and bend. Want to see him develop a better set of pass rush moves; too reliant on speed on the high side and a speed-to-power move which, while solid, should not be such a key piece of his game. Because he really only has a couple of pass rush moves, he can overcompensate and get a bit too low while trying to make his bendy speed rush work; if he does this, he is vulnerable as he can easily be pushed into the ground. 

Once he is engaged with larger blockers, seems to have a bit of trouble disengaging or working through the contact. Don’t love him stunting inside to deal with guards and to be double-teamed; I am not sure he has the power or the size for that. Doesn’t have a particularly strong anchor when taking on the run – can be removed from plays as a run defender. 

When dropping back after showing blitz, would like to see him turn to read the quarterback a bit earlier. There are times in coverage where I would like to see him be a bit more natural; he can come in a bit aggressively at the top of the route stem and be beaten because he will come to meet the receiver with physicality at that point.