While Josh Uche's rookie campaign was underwhelming, in terms of volume, the 22-year-old athletic phenom showed flashes of great promise in his limited playing time.
As a college prospect, Uche displayed a rare blend of freak athleticism and versatility, a combination that usually warrants a top pick, à la Isaiah Simmons. Uche was able to do everything, from bull rushing Tristian Wirfs and Jedrick Wills to covering K.J. Hamler 50 yards downfield. It was not uncommon to see Uche set the edge on one play and then shut down a tight end in downfield man coverage on the next.
Despite his versatility, Uche's greatest hurdle has always been his inexperience, and therefore lack of specialization. Unfortunately, the main cause for his reduced college snap count was simply injury — and this continued into his rookie year.
After starting the first six weeks of the NFL season on injured reserve, Uche finally saw the field in Week 7 against the Buffalo Bills. A couple weeks later, he recorded his first career sack on a vicious play against the Baltimore Ravens.
Though his snap count rose to an average of roughly 30 percent throughout the rest of the season, Uche's production never quite hit its stride. Yet on film, Uche appeared to be an agent of chaos, constantly holding the edge against the run and collapsing the pocket against the pass.
But Uche's rookie campaign ended the way it started: on injured reserve.
Regardless, one particular game from Uche's 2020 season emerges as a great sign of things to to come: his performance against the Los Angeles Chargers, perhaps one of the most entertaining zero-sack performances I've ever seen.
In this game, Uche played 36 defensive snaps (or 50 percent of the total share), his highest proportion of the season for any game. I took the liberty of charting out and grading each of Uche's snaps within the box.
Noteworthy Plays vs LAC:
In college, Uche had a tendency to jab step to the inside before attempting an outside rip move (he did it so many times that in my film notes from the draft, it is simply referred to as “that move”). It seems that New England allowed Uche to keep this fundamental approach but with one key difference: instead of a jab step inside, Uche now stutter steps while staying square. The refined footwork allows Uche to stay more balanced, leading to a decently explosive rip move, as seen on this play. While the move potentially could have worked if Herbert held on to the ball longer, Uche shows a potential area for improvement here in his hand usage and general body synchronization.
There’s athleticism, and then there’s “running a stunt from the right 7 technique alignment into the left side B gap” athleticism. Uche essentially teleports across three gaps within a fraction of a second and shows an incredible combination of lateral agility and vertical burst, single-handedly pressuring Herbert into having to throw the ball away. While the interior defensive linemen deserves credit for their seals inside, there’s not too many other pass rushers who could show the level of athleticism and gap-reading ability that Uche demonstrates on this play.
Uche’s most impressive play, by far, came in the second quarter. Uche is lined up as a 9 tech on the left side of the line in a two-point stance, and since it’s third-and-9, he has the green light to pass-rush. Uche begins with a stutter step while keeping square to the LT, and he immediately gets bumped by the slot receiver. Undeterred, he gets hands inside the LT and uses a very Chase Winovich-esque move as he quickly transitions into a pull — this move allows him to cloth-tear around the tackle. After clearing the tackle with his hips, Uche displays his natural bend ability and explosion, as he’s able to quickly close in on Herbert and deliver a great hit on a clutch down. Despite not getting the sack, Uche shows a glimpse of the level of pass rush he could be capable of for Sundays to come. For an opposing quarterback and offensive line, there is truly no way to describe this other than fearsome.
With the Patriots' offseason focused on rebuilding a porous front seven, Uche likely will see his role expand. While Uche, alongside rookie Ronnie Perkins, likely will become a staple of the New England NASCAR package on obvious passing downs, it's reasonable to assume that his role as a run stopper will see an increase in 2021 as well.
Uche's ability to stop the run was generally underrated last season. Against speedier ground-and-pound squads like the Ravens, Uche showed the ability and versatility to remain on the field for all three downs. As his mental development continues into his sophomore season, further specialization could see him becoming a top-notch "joker" for the Patriots defense.
Additionally, against mobile quarterbacks, Uche provides an excellent edge or off-ball option as a container, spy, or gap manager. Therefore, it may not be a coincidence that his first NFL game was against Josh Allen, and that twice-yearly matchup may be why Bill Belichick drafted him in the first place.
Over the last 10 years, NFL offenses have continued to become smaller and faster. In his decades-long career as the New England head coach, Belichick has never had a player with this level of versatility, athleticism, and football intelligence. It's scary to imagine what the best defensive mind in football can do with a player who does … everything.