The Patriots lost 17.5 sacks from their 2019 defense via free agency and in a league where getting pressure on the quarterback is critical, the team had a big need heading into the draft.
That's why the selection of Josh Uche in the second round made a lot of sense. Uche came with some questions, but generating pass rush was not one of them. While he seems poised to be an instant contributor on passing downs and special teams, his non-stop drive could finally elevate him to the every-down player he wants to be.
With an impressive get-off, underrated strength and a unique ability to bend the edge around offensive tackles, Uche racked up 19.5 tackles-for-loss and 16.5 sacks in four years at Michigan, despite being a specialized quarterback hunter on the Wolverine defense with most of his production coming in his final two seasons.
Uche maxed out playing just 52.8 percent the defensive snaps as a senior, but the Patriots had an early bead on him.
"We basically had three guys we wrote down and said if we could get these three guys, we would be somewhat happy. [Dugger] was one of them. Uche was the other one," said Nick Caserio in the wake of the draft.
The son of Nigerian immigrants, Uche played his high school football under Christopher Columbus High School coach Chris Merritt, arriving to the game a bit later than most in Miami, Florida, as he focused on academics early in high school.
But coachable kids who work hard can catch up quick. Uche's work ethic, both on and off the field rocketed him from a quick, skinny sophomore to a Division I prospect.
"The one thing he had, was he always had... he's very coachable," said Merritt, now the head coach at Bryant University. "He always had a motor, he always had a drive.
"He just does not stop going and he's only got one gear and that's the fastest one he's got."
Uche recalled some early inspiration from Coach Merritt.
"I was a sophomore," recalled Uche. "I had a pretty good spring but I saw a bunch of my teammates getting all these college letters and flyers in the mail and I was getting upset that I wasn't getting any. I kept asking, 'Did any mail come in? Did any mail come in?'
"And then finally [Coach Merritt] got so sick of it, he scratched off - another kid on the team, his name was Josh as well - he got one of his letters, scratched off his last name and wrote mine on there and gave me it. I looked at it and I'm like, 'What are you doing?' It threw me off, but taught me to work even harder."
That hard work combined with his quickness and surprising strength allowed Uche to develop a very specific and valuable set of skills -- rushing the passer. It wasn't long before he started to catch the eyes of scouts, including current Michigan Defensive Coordinator Don Brown, who first noticed Uche while still at Boston College.
"It was, on your mark, get set, go. It was see ball, get ball. That's where he started," recalled Brown, who quickly checked in on Uche when he became the Wolverine's defensive coordinator in 2016.
"The thing that I felt strongly about with him was, this guy can rush the passer," said Brown. "The lack of size was an issue, but instead of trying to peck away at all the things that he couldn't do as a defensive end, we just said, 'We'll let him rush the passer, and do the things he can do.'"
That he did, as Uche continued to push Brown to get him more involved.
"He'd come over to the one-on-one pass rush with the defensive line," said Brown. "The only problem was you had to get him out of there. 'Josh. You just went. Go stand over there for a minute, and let next guy go.' He was always stealing reps, but he loves it, inside, outside, interior blitzing. He loves working his craft as a pass rusher, without question."
As Uche developed, Brown continued to get creative to incorporate him into the defense, expanding his role after a breakout game against Northwestern during his junior season.
"Coach Brown and their staff have done a great job," said Nick Caserio. "[Uche] moved around the front a little bit. Played in the perimeter. They used him some at Mike linebacker. Used him in some sub situations. He's been asked to do a number of different things in a good defense."
"We started interjecting him in packages so that he could develop confidence and we could integrate him into the game plan on third down," said Brown. "We built him a nice role, very similar to the Patriots, in our sub packages, and he was in every one of those. But in creating this thing, there's also a tremendous amount of mental learning because each week we were evolved in change."
The Patriots defense is similarly fluid. It requires not only versatile players but ones smart enough to pick up new and unique game plans every week. Uche's experience in Brown's defense should give him a jump on what the Pats will have him doing.
"A lot of guys don't know how complex Coach Brown's defense is - there's so many different depths to it and levels to it and a bunch of different plays and sets and different formations you've got to do different things with." described Uche.
An impressive Senior Bowl week raised Uche's stock despite concerns over his size and niche role as a pass rusher in college. It was a potential preview of how Uche's game will translate to the NFL and Senior Bowl Executive Director and former Patriots scout Jim Nagy thought Uche might've been the best player in Mobile.
"He is not your cookie cutter defensive end or outside linebacker, he brings a specific skillset to the table," said his high school coach Merritt. "And he is somebody who he has the ability to bend, and what I mean by that is just that he can go very fast around corners very well. I think that's where he poses a lot of nightmares for those big 6'6, 6'7 offensive tackles who cannot keep up with him around the edge. And he's going to force protection issues for some teams, I think based off of what he does."
Aside from making an immediate impact as a pass rusher, Uche will also bring value on 4th down, an area the Patriots value like few other teams.
"I would say with Uche, he's played in the kicking game," said Caserio. "The ability to play on fourth down is something that we put a premium on."
Merritt could see why the Pats would see great value with Uche.
"One of the things the college football coaches and NFL coaches love are those longer bodies that can run, especially for special teams because he's going to probably fill a role on six different special teams and I can see him being on all of them," said Merritt.
Though he brings immediate value on third and fourth down, don't expect Uche to stop pushing to play every down.
Added Merritt, "I know he won't be satisfied with just playing special teams and rushing the passer on third down, he's going to do everything in his power to get on the field."
Uche will enter the NFL at a unique time. He won't see the field with his new teammates any time soon, and will instead get a mostly-virtual introduction to professional football. No matter the circumstances, the 60th-overall pick was grateful and ready to attack it the same way he's attacked everything else.
"When my opportunity came, I made sure I was ready and I made sure I executed and I made sure I kept making plays so I could keep getting more chances," recalled Uche. "I just took every play, every snap like it was my last, and that's what got me to the point I'm at today."
As for fitting in on the Patriots defense, Uche thought he'd be ready for whatever was thrown at him.
"I would say it's a good fit for me because I'm a hard-ass worker and the Patriots work their asses off, so that's first and foremost. The Patriots themselves are just very unique, very diverse, very dynamic and they do a bunch of different things, and I feel like that's who I am as a football player. I just feel like it's definitely a perfect fit."