Inside linebacker was one position often linked to the New England Patriots in the first round of the NFL draft. The Patriots went another route Day 1 when selecting Chattanooga offensive lineman over prospects such as Utah's Devin Lloyd and Georgia's Nakobe Dean.
New England elected to pass on linebacker prospects throughout the three-day process, grabbing several running backs and cornerbacks instead. Many were shocked due to the lack of prominent names and depth behind veterans such as Ja'Whaun Bentley and Josh Uche.
That's not the way Matt Groh feels about the position. When asked about the reasoning behind passing on talent, he spoke of optimism at the position and was pleased with the development of young players.
One prospect mentioned by name was second-year linebacker Cameron McGrone.
"[We're] excited to see him be in an expanded role," Groh said of McGrone. "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.”
McGrone, the Patriots' fifth-round pick in April 2021, has high hopes to be the future thumper of Bill Belichick's defense. Much of his game is still untapped in large part due to injuries in the past two seasons.
Following a stellar sophomore campaign at Michigan, McGrone suffered a torn ACL during the middle of his junior season. A projected Day 2 prospect, McGrone fell to the Patriots' lap later than expected, thus allowing the team to essentially redshirt him for a season to fully recover.
“I’m very excited,” McGrone told reporters. “There’s no nervous bone in my body. I know what I have to do. I know the time’s coming. I just have to wait for that time. Every day, I’m just going to keep working until that point.”
McGrone spent last season often working out in the rehabilitation center, but also spending hours in the film room. Lost in the playbook, he told reporters that if he couldn't be making adjustments on the field physically, he'd be doing so mentally instead.
There was a chance for New England to promote him to the active roster after medical personnel cleared him to return, but the coaching staff chose to keep him away. McGrone did attend practice, to which he caught the eye of several coaches in the process, thus giving them a foundation on his strengths and weaknesses.
"He plays fast, he has good speed and he showed some good instincts out there in practice," linebacker coach Steve Belichick said. "He looked like he belonged out there with everybody else."
There's a bit of added pressure for McGrone to be ready Week 1 following the draft. Bentley should start on one side, but the weakside position. Kyle Van Noy was released earlier this offseason. So far, both Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins have not been re-signed.
McGrone credited his speed as being an asset to his play style. Not just his running speed, but also his ability to learn on the fly. Last season, it took just several weeks for him to understand the concepts of the defense and what Bill Belichick looks for in his middle linebackers.
It's now about seeing the physical reps attached to the mental processing.
“Last year, I was able to watch a lot of film, hear a lot of knowledge from older guys and the main thing was really kind of knowing what was coming before it comes, so that knowledge, knowing your opponent," McGrone said. "Once you're able to anticipate, you can play as fast as you want."
There seemed to be a plan in place for McGrone's role after all. Just because New England fans might have forgotten his name doesn't mean he can't become yet another pawn in the Patriots' defense that shines out the gate.
McGrone picked up where he left on in practice at the start of OTAs, according to Jerod Mayo. That's fine for now, but shorts and helmet won't determine if he can be a staple defensively at the second level.
Then again, it's at least a starting point.
"Cam did a great job staying engaged in the classroom when he couldn't go on the field [last year]," said Mayo. "This year, I would say he's healthy, back out here running around, he looks good and he's also picking up the defense,"