Uche's ability to threaten the edge is just one of his intriguing skills. Mike Mulholland/MLive
According to Nick Caserio, the Patriots entered the second day of this year's NFL draft with three names circled as the team's primary targets. After taking Kyle Dugger at 37 overall, the Patriots traded back up late in the second round to land a second guy from their list: Michigan's Josh Uche.
The pick drew first pumps and loud cheers from yours truly, who first noticed Uche's explosive athleticism during the Senior Bowl and had been rooting for him to become a Patriot ever since. Many pundits agreed with me that Uche's extremely varied skill-set and athleticism made him uniquely qualified to play in a Patriots system known for demanding versatility from it's front seven players.
What kind of player is Josh Uche and why were the Patriots enamored with him? I took a dive through his college film, parsing through every snap against Penn State, Iowa and Alabama, along with his impressive film from the Senior Bowl. This gave me the opportunity to see him in a variety of roles against three different offenses and elite competition, including plenty of rushing snaps against first round prospects like Tristan Wirfs, Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood (projected 2021 first rounder).
Uche's versatility is intriguing, but lets be clear: his pass rushing upside is his biggest strength as a prospect. According to PFF, Uche has the highest pass rush win rate of any edge defender in college football over the past two seasons. Last season, his only as a starter, he generated pressure on 23.3% of his pass rushing snaps, posting a win rate of 28.2%. Both figures ranked second in the nation amongst FBS edge defenders.
The eyeball test immediately backs up what the stats tell you. A strained hammy prevented Uche from posting athletic testing numbers at the combine, with the coronavirus pandemic later shutting down his Pro Day. Many have since speculated that posting workout numbers might have pushed his stock into late first/early second round territory, as it clear when watching him that Uche is an elite athlete for his position. His explosiveness off the snap is obvious, with his first step and overall speed being enough to put most offensive tackles on their heels. Quite simply, his pure athleticism was too much for his overmatched competition at the Senior Bowl, as he had two separate runs of individual dominance during the game. The first such stretch came at the expense of South Carolina State right tackle Alex Taylor, who was barely able to even get hands on Uche (6) on a few of these reps.
After that second play, the South team lined up a tight end to Uche's side and dedicated a running back to chipping him. That extra attention benefitted the defense, as his bookend (future Cowboys fifth rounder Bradlee Anae) won his one-on-one matchup with Oregon's Calvin Throckmorton, landing a hit on the quarterback that produced a floating duck interception.
Uche's next run of dominance would come when he got his own shot at Throckmorton, who is playing right tackle in the sequence below.
Don't get me wrong, I went much deeper into Uche's tape because I needed to see him against better competition than this. Taylor, regarded as a toolsy upside project by most scouts, went undrafted before signing with the Browns. Throckmorton had a quality college career but went undrafted as well, with most scouts forecasting a move inside in his future due to his lack of ideal athleticism or length on the outside (he's since signed with the Saints). Uche should have dominated against these type of guys, and him doing so doesn't necessarily project to success against actual NFL tackles
However, this film does show us the pass rushing traits that made him so successful on a snap-to-snap basis with Michigan. That last rep against Throckmorton in particular shows us that he has the flexibility and bend around the edge that many pass rushing prospects, even some with impressive explosion, don't have. First notice how he's able to keep his balance despite dipping his shoulder low to gain leverage underneath Throckmorton's pads. That alone requires an impressive amount of body control, flexibility and core strength (remember, he's moving forward in that awkward position with a 300 pound human leaning on him). The ability to complete the turn at the top of the arc and finish the play (this pass wound up floating thanks to his hit and was intercepted) is typically the finishing trait that separates the good pass rushers from the great ones. Uche has that natural ability to bend sharply around the edge that most ends and linebackers, even the good ones, simply don't have.
Pure speed and bend was more than enough for Uche to dominate against the Taylor's and Throckmorton's he faced at the Senior Bowl. He had to dig much deeper into his bag of tricks against the better offensive tackles he faced during Michigan's season, a schedule that featured dates with two of the "Big 4" offensive tackles of this year's draft.
For example, his film against Iowa and right tackle Tristan Wirfs showcased some unexpected but impressive power. With Wirfs concerned with getting depth on his drops to counter Uche's speed, Uche was able to repeatedly catch him off balance with his bull rush. You wouldn't expect a 245 linebacker to be able to repeatedly drive back a 320 pound first round offensive tackle, but Uche was able to drive Wirfs back to the feet of his quarterback on several reps.
These are the first reps we've seen where Uche has had to really use his length as part of his rush plan. Unlike the traffic cones he faced at the Senior Bowl, Uche can't beat Wirfs easily with just pure speed off the edge. Uche's speed, however, is enough to rush the athletic Wirfs as he goes into his kickstep. On both examples, Uche manages to strike Wirfs inside with power while the tackle is still moving backwards and catches him off balance. On both reps, Uche takes advantage of his leverage and the initial jolt of his bull rush to drive the much larger Wirfs back to the lap of his quarterback.
The ability to strike an opponent first is often the difference between winning and losing individual battles in the trenches. That's where Uche's 33 5/8" arms come in handy (90th percentile for linebackers). Despite being otherwise undersized at 6'1" and 245 pounds, Uche's arms are just as long as the offensive tackles he'll be battling. That's a been the key to his speed-to-power bull rush, which is a surprisingly larger part of his pass rush arsenal despite his lack of size. When Uche lands the first strike and gets his hands inside, he shows an impressive ability to move much bigger offensive tackles.
With that said, Uche is still a speed based player. His bull rush is set up by the constant threat of him simply out gunning your tackle around the edge. The ability to bend like he does in either of these reps isn't natural. The play above comes against Alaric Jackson, a three year starter at left tackle for Iowa who is might have been in this year's draft class if not for a in-season injury. The play below comes against Alex Leatherwood, Alabama's left tackle and a prospect thought of as a first round possibility next spring. Uche makes both of them look pretty bad on these reps.
Good luck blocking him with a tight end.
Even elite pass blockers had trouble containing Uche. Below, we see him get around the outside shoulder of Wirfs, forcing the eventual 13th overall pick to blatantly hold him (he didn't get the flag, but you all have eyes).
Uche also made an impression in his work against Alabama's Jedrick Wills, who named Uche as the toughest pass rusher he faced this year when asked at the combine. Here we see a good battle between the two, with Uche using his long arms to swat away Wills' initial punch before dipping his shoulder under Wills. Usually Uche has won once he gets to this point, as his next step would be too quick for most tackles to recover. Wills, however, isn't most tackles, and uses his nimble feet to cut off Uche's final turn to the quarterback, running him safely just past Mac Jones in the pocket.
Uche will only improve as a rusher as he further develops his technique and hand usage. He's not starting from scratch in that department, like many of the raw athletic pass rushing projects that enter the league, but he's still a guy that wins more with natural explosion and burst than a nuanced set of moves and counters. That raw talent should be enough for him to make an impact at least as a rusher right away, but his pass rushing productivity should continue to ascend as he further learns how to take full advantage of having those absurdly long arms.
Transition to linebacker
All of the clips above show Uche rushing the passer from the edge. It's a role he played a lot at Michigan and is certainly amongst the things he'll be asked to do in New England. However, at 245 pounds, Uche is too light to live full-time on the edge in the NFL. Asking him to win wrestling matches for the edge on running downs is simply misusing Uche's athletic skills. Therefore, we're projecting more of a move to a full time off-the-ball linebacker role, with his ability to challenge the edge as a speed rusher being an added bonus.
Uche was used in a variety of ways at Michigan, with reps at inside linebacker sprinkled throughout the admittedly small sample size that is Uche's film (657 career snaps). The reason to be excited about his projection to that role is his movement skill in space, which will instantly be well above average for his position in the NFL. Unlike most pass rushers, Uche looks nearly as comfortable moving backwards and playing in space as he does attacking upfield. There's nothing a linebacker can be asked to do that he can't manage athletically, making him uniquely suited for a Patriots scheme that asks its linebackers to wear a ton of hats.
Uche's usage when deployed at linebacker was actually pretty similar stylistically to how the Patriots have used the similarly athletic Jamie Collins in the past. A favorite trick of Michigan's was standing Uche and other linebackers up directly in the B gaps between the guards, displaying the threat of overwhelming the line with an all out run blitz. They could then play all kind of games regarding which players were actually joining the rush, as Uche would sometimes attack upfield and sometimes drop back into coverage.
Here we see him disguise and time his upfield attack perfectly, exploding through the line into the Alabama backfield before they even know what hit them. Fortunately for the Tide, they have a quick pass called and are able to neutralize the damage of Uche's penetration.
Against Iowa, we see the flip side of that usage. Here, Uche and new Redskins fifth round pick Khaleke Hudson (#7) are both showing blitz, with Hudson in the A gap between the guard and center and Uche in the B gap between the guard and left tackle. Both drop into coverage, along with the edge defender to their side. With all three potential rushers on the offenses left dropping into coverage, there's a natural overload created on the other side, which linebacker Cameron McGrone takes advantage of by bursting free for the sack.
The Patriots have used plenty of rush packages like this to great effect over the past six years. Those types of packages became predominant in their scheme once Jamie Collins ascended to the starting lineup in 2014, as he combined with Donta Hightower to give the Patriots two linebackers who could do serious damage when joining the rush but also handle themselves when dropping back into coverage.
Here's a great example from that 2014 season. The play starts with Hightower and Collins showing as stand up rush threats at the line of scrimmage. At the snap Collins rushes the B gap but Hightower and Rob Ninkovich drop into coverage. This leaves the confused Bears offensive line with running back Matt Forte trying to account for Collins, which a major mismatch in the Patriots favor. Collins quickly wins that matchup and nearly sacks Jay Cutler, with Jonathan Casillas eventually getting the clean-up credit on the sack.
Those type of plays were a major part of the Patriots pass rush scheme for years and could work even more effectively with Uche, who terrorized guards in this type of role at Michigan. For all of Collins' athleticism, he was never as fluid in coverage as his testing numbers would have suggested. Patriots fans will remember more than a few times that Collins let them down in coverage over the years, most notably the 2015 AFC Championship game when an ancient by NFL standards Owen Daniels beat him for a crucial touchdown.
Uche looks like a far more natural athlete moving backwards than Collins ever did. Go back to that example of Uche dropping against Iowa. Note that he doesn't merely drop into a shallow zone, but rather picks up the tight end running a seam from the opposite side of the formation! That's an extremely demanding assignment that most players wouldn't even be considered for. Uche pulls it off smoothly, and his ability to hold up his end in coverage helps the rush get there for the sack.
Here we see an example from Senior Bowl of how Uche's length is an asset in coverage as well. Matched up with Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, Uche gets his hands on Hopkins right off the snap and presses him all the way through the route, smothering the eventual Rams fourth round pick throughout the route before using that length to knock the ball away. The only knock here is his inability to hold on to the ball for the pick, but we'll forgive that for a player far more used to pinning his ears back as a rusher.
Of course, speed matters now more than ever for NFL defenders. Not only does Uche have the natural lateral ability and flexibility to backpedal into zones comfortably, but he also has the pure speed to turn and run with players most linebackers would get absolutely dusted by.
Perhaps no play demonstrated this skill better than this eye-opening snap from his Penn State film. Uche is standing up at the line of scrimmage, threatening blitz, but just prior to the snap drops 15 yards into zone coverage. The scheme appears to be some variation of a classic Tony Dungy "Tampa 2", with the middle linebacker (Uche here) responsible for the deep middle of the field. Penn State tries to take advantage by sending KJ Hamler, an eventual second round pick of the Broncos known for his sub 4.3 speed, deep down the field from the slot. This forces Uche into chase mode, as the safety is late rotating and Hamler is running free down the seam. Uche is admittedly bailed out a bit by an underthrow that forces Hamler to slow down, but having the speed just to catch up to this play is incredible for a 245 pound linebacker. Note how he uses his length at the end of the play too, as he uses his long arms to contest Hamler's hands rather than getting lost by turning around looking for the ball.
That speed will also come in handy against the run, where Uche's sideline-to-sideline range will greatly benefit a defense that has at times struggled when challenged horizontally (think of past match ups with the Chiefs). Uche's closing burst is better than anyone the Patriots have played at linebacker in the Belichick era, with Collins being the only possible exception.
Think they could have used that kind of speed on the field last year against Baltimore?
While Uche obviously has tons of upside at linebacker, there is some projection involved in making him a full time starter at that position. Namely, the mental aspects of the position will need some fine tuning before he can reach his full potential. When it comes to reading blocking schemes and rushing lanes from the second level, Uche is still a novice. His range makes him an ideal candidate to sniff out screens and chase down outside runs, but offenses that pound the ball between the tackles could give him some problems early on.
This play from his Bowl game against Alabama highlights that weakness to his game. Uche simply misreads the rushing lane and steps up inside, allowing a blocker to easily seal him off from the rushing lane. It's a tough read, as the pulling guard suggest the play is designed to run off of right tackle, rather than up the middle. However, its on the linebackers to react to the running back's read, and Uche misjudges this one. If he plays as an every down inside linebacker early on, there will be the occasional play like this where he takes himself out of position.
However, the mental part of the game can develop, especially with two fantastic mentors in Donta Hightower and linebackers coach Jerod Mayo present to help him get up to speed. For every play he misread in college, there was another where he displayed his athleticism to sift through the trash and get to the ball carrier.
The Patriots are in a great position to break Uche into the lineup this year. With Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all leaving for more lucrative pastures, there will be opportunities for snaps. However, with Hightower and Ja'Whaun Bentley present, Uche wont be forced into a misfitting thumper role, especially against teams that like to run inside with power. Uche should immediately factor into passing down subpackages, where his pass rushing ability should inject some noticeable juice into the defense.
That's a very realistic scenario for his rookie year. If he proves a quick study, he could ascend to a starting, every-down role as early as midseason, particularly against teams that look to stress defenses with speed, tempo and pass happy play-calling. Even if he remains a sub-package player early on, he should make noticeable contributions right away. Simply put, this guy has the talent to turn into one of the best three down linebackers in football sooner than later. I wouldn't bet against his talent, and I wouldn't bet against Belichick and Mayo eventually getting the best out of him.