New England Patriots

The off-season has only reinforced an obvious reality in Foxboro: if you’re calling for improvements at linebacker, those would have to come internally.

It’s fair to wonder just how much the Patriots will end up getting out of those in-house options, but it’s clear that they are going with a youth movement. And it won’t come without risk, because one of the key pieces of that transition will be second-year pro Cameron McGrone.

Speed and versatility matters more than ever at the linebacker position, and it’s populated around the NFL with players who don’t project as typical Bill Belichick players. The Patriots have long favored size, power, and play strength, particularly on the inside, where Dont’a Hightower anchored the defense for a decade. They still have that, in the form of the newly extended Ja’Whaun Bentley. But the drafting of McGrone in 2021 was an early sign that the Pats’ philosophy has already morphed.

McGrone missed his entire rookie season as his recovery from ACL surgery spilled into the fall. But he was able to return to the practice field late in the season and get some NFL-level work under his belt. Speaking to reporters after the team’s first open practice of 2022, McGrone spoke about the value of working with his more experienced teammates as a rookie.

“It definitely helped a lot, spending all that time in the rooms with the older guys, watching film, just learning there,” McGrone said. “Then to be able to put it on the field for just a couple weeks toward the end of the season was really good, to get my feet back, and just getting to it. And now, coming in with that knowledge, I’m just really excited.”

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Standing at 6-foot-1 and 236 pounds, McGrone profiles as closer to the shifty, explosive inside linebackers that have become more common in recent years. If all goes well and McGrone hits his ceiling, or even blows through it, he could be the Patriots’ version of Darius Leonard or Devin White. Even a poor man’s version of those players would bode well for a defense that has lacked explosiveness at inside linebacker in recent years.

McGrone certainly puts the work in. He detailed his off-field routines during his rookie season, which included extensive film study from the comfort of his home. That allowed him to hone the finer details.

“Since you’re not gonna be in the game, you can really look at the little things, help your teammates out, because they might not be paying attention to everything like that,” McGrone said. “So, I got to spend a lot more time watching film on the couch while they’re out playing the game, and just really dissect from that point of view. With all that knowledge, I’m really ready to put it back out on the field myself.”

Patriots coaches have echoed McGrone’s excitement. Outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick spoke highly of McGrone when asked about him in a video conference earlier in the off-season.

“It was exciting to have him on the field last year for those couple weeks before he reverted to IR or PUP,” Belichick said (via Zack Cox at NESN.com). “When he was practicing, it was really exciting to see him out there. One thing that I noticed is that all the other guys on the field had been playing football for months, and then he had been coming off of a year or whatever of not playing football, and he really didn’t look in any sort of way out of place on the field, which I thought was impressive.”

Matt Groh, the Patriots’ new director of player personnel, took the extra step of basically counting McGrone as an extra rookie with that much more experience than the others. It’s not the least bit surprising that Groh would also be excited about McGrone, but it’s telling that top coaches and execs in the organization continue to name-drop him.

“Excited to see Cam McGrone was able to get on the field a little bit last year, excited to see him be in an expanded role,” Groh told reporters after day 2 of the 2022 draft. “He’s kind of an additional draft pick. You can kind of put him along there with the three guys that we’ve been able to add here today, along with some of the other guys from last year. That all kind of counts to getting younger, getting faster, being a tough team.”

Between McGrone and his former Michigan teammate Josh Uche expanding their roles, the Patriots certainly have speed and youth to lean on in their new-look linebacking corps. That may come at the expense of the kind of inconsistency in execution and production that tends to come with less experienced players. But regardless of how guys like McGrone and Uche ultimately perform, the Patriots are clearly looking toward them to deliver some much-needed speed to their defense.

PHOTOS: Mac Jones, Patriots get to work for 2022 OTAs in Foxboro

Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. You can also email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.


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Patriots OTA Notebook Day 2: Working on the fundamentals

  • As Bill Belichick likes to remind people this time of year, OTAs and Minicamp are ‘teaching periods.’ The purpose of the offseason workouts isn’t to decide the roster, but prepare players for training camp and the season ahead.

    Tuesday’s practice – which was the team’s fourth overall and second open to the media – proved to be another opportunity for the coaching staff to do just that. The first half of the session consisted of mostly conditioning, followed by positional drills the rest of the afternoon. There was no 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 sessions, as the offense and defense stayed separate throughout the day.

    So, what is there to take away from that kind of practice? Here’s a few observations…

  • Bill Belichick remains involved in the offense

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches players practice at the team's OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches players practice at the team’s OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    As was the case last week (you can find that practice notebook here), Belichick spent most of the practice with the offense. He wasn’t just overseeing things either, but appeared to have a hands-on role. That was especially true with the wide receivers, as he coached them through a release drill at one point.

    Joe Judge and Matt Patricia were also heavily involved on the offensive side of the ball once again. Joe Judge continues to work with the quarterbacks, while Patricia is spending most of his time with the offensive line.

    There are still no (public) official titles for the Patriots’ offensive coaching staff. However, through two practices it looks like Belichick, Judge, and Patricia will all play key roles.

  • Offensive line alignment

    Aug 29, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots offensive guard Justin Herron (75) in action against the New York Giants during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 29, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots offensive guard Justin Herron (75) in action against the New York Giants during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

    OTA practices are optional, which means when players don’t show up we get looks at alternate alignments that offer a better view of how the team views its depth. That’s been true on the offensive line so far this spring. Isaiah Wynn hasn’t practiced yet, and Trent Brown was not spotted on Tuesday after being at last week’s session.

    Those absences have offered more opportunities for the Patriots’ depth tackles. Justin Herron has seen the most increased reps through two practices, and Yodny Cajuste got more involved on Tuesday as well.

    Given the injury histories of Wynn and Brown, who project to be the team’s starters this year, tackle depth is key for the Patriots. Getting these guys these extra reps now may end up being valuable down the road.

  • Attendance

    Aug 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Matt Judon (9) at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Matt Judon (9) at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Wynn and Brown were two of 11 players who weren’t spotted at Tuesday’s practice. The others not in attendance were running back James White, wide receiver N’Keal Harry, offensive linemen Chasen Hines and Andrew Stueber, defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Byron Cowart, linebackers Matthew Judon and Anfernee Jennings, and kicker Quinn Nordin. Harry, Hines, Stueber, Cowart, Judon, and Nordin all didn’t participate in the first practice either.

    Meanwhile, a couple of players were present at the start of practice, but then limited the rest of the day. They were tight end Dalton Keene, linebackers Raekwon McMillan and DeMarcus Mitchell, and safeties Jabrill Peppers and Brenden Schooler.

  • Rookie involvement

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Brailey Zappe throws the ball at the team's OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Brailey Zappe throws the ball at the team’s OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    For last week’s media practice, the majority of the Patriots’ rookies spent most of the day on the sideline. On Tuesday, the group as a whole appeared to be more involved on a drill-to-drill basis. Perhaps this was in part facilitated by the tempo of the practice, but it shows how the team is ramping up its first-year players.

    One rookie who did stand out was quarterback Bailey Zappe. It’s not like the quarterbacks can throw line drive passes at quarter or half speed, and the fourth-round pick displayed impressive zip on the ball.

  • Tyquan Thornton addresses frame questions

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (51) works with training aids at the team's OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (51) works with training aids at the team’s OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Since the Patriots drafted him in the second round, a lot has been made about wide receiver Tyquan Thornton‘s build. At the Combine, he measured in at 6-foot-3, 181 pounds.

    There’s been a lot of discussion since that pick about Thornton needing to add size to his frame to make sure he can sustain an NFL career. He was asked about that after Tuesday’s practice, speaking to the media for the first time since the draft.

    “I wouldn’t necessarily say getting bigger, I’d just say getting stronger,” Thornton said of his approach. “Putting the speed with having strength.”

    “It’s a process. Coming in every day just trying to work and get better. Making strides each and every day,” he continued. “This is my body type. This is my frame. I don’t see myself getting to 225 pounds. Been thin all my life. Just getting stronger in the weight room, building more muscle so I can have that fast twitch.” Thornton added there is not specific goal weight for him at this time.

  • Malcolm Butler feeling familiar back in New England

    FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16: Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBORO, MA – JANUARY 16: Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    “It’s feels like yesterday,” Malcolm Butler told reporters to being his media availability on Tuesday – his first since re-singing with the Patriots in March. The 32-year-old cornerback noted it doesn’t feel as though much has changed from a day-to-day operation point of view since his last season in New England in 2017.

    “Different players. Players that used to play coaching now,” he noted when asked if anything has stood out as being different. “But one thing [that] never left is their hard work. So ain’t too much changed on my end.”

    Butler said the same of the Patriots’ defensive scheme. Although there’s been some speculation the team may switch to a zone-based look this year, Butler told reporters that it’s “kind of the same.”

    “Got a little tweak to it. Nothing I can’t handle,” he added. “So I’m just here to work. Execute my job, do my job.”

    Even when it comes to Belichick, Butler says things are the way he remembered. “Ain’t nothing changed but his age,” Butler said with a chuckle.

    Of course, there is one significant big-picture change to the team since Butler’s last time here, and that’s under center. What does he think of the team’s new quarterback?

    “I like Mac. I was at home watching him. He’s got great energy on and off the field. I like him,” Butler said. “His confidence, his swagger, I love that about him.”

  • What’s next?

    The Patriots will hold two more OTA practices this week, over the next two days. Both of those sessions are closed to the media. Then the team is off until June 7, when they begin the three-day Mandatory Minicamp. All three of those sessions will be open to the media.

NEXT: Kendrick Bourne’s funny jab for new teammate Tyquan Thornton