The glimpses of Cameron McGrone were blurry in 2021.
A brief summer sighting here and there, a snippet of him running sprints on the rehab field during the season, and finally some snapshots of him in team work during the media window of Patriots practice late in the year.
It was hard to draw any conclusions on the progress the rookie linebacker had made since New England selected him in the fifth round last April. Bill Belichick had hinted that McGrone, who suffered a torn ACL in 2020, might need a prep season to simultaneously rehab and acclimate to the Patriots program.
His appearance at practices during a three-week period in November and December was an indication that McGrone was healthy again, and Belichick and teammates said the 6-foot-1-inch, 236-pounder was an attentive student during team meetings and film sessions.
McGrone could lead a trio of 2021 draftees — along with linebacker Ronnie Perkins and safety Joshuah Bledsoe — that provides a jolt of youthful enthusiasm into the Patriots defense in 2022 after serving de facto redshirt seasons.
New England has several high-profile veteran defenders poised to hit free agency (linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Ja’Whaun Bentley and safety Devin McCourty), so having prospects in the pipeline is key.
Though comparatively undersized coming out of Michigan, McGrone likely has increased his bulk and muscle over the last year, and his speed and athleticism could allow him to develop into the type of versatile three-down player the Patriots covet.
Don Brown, McGrone’s defensive coordinator at Michigan, believes his former pupil could be a perfect fit in New England.
“I’ll tell you, he’s fast, he’s furious, and he’s physical, so he’s got all the ingredients you look for,” Brown said last week. “But the guy can really run, and I mean legitimately run — not run for a linebacker, the guy can legitimately run regardless of position on the field.”
Brown, now the head coach at UMass, could see McGrone being a key weapon in combating dual-threat quarterbacks such as Buffalo’s Josh Allen.
“Everybody’s got some elements of the spread run game,” he said. “Not that they’re getting their quarterbacks put out there, but they’re running those elements and the [run-pass options] and all those things.
“Well, in the RPOs, you’ve got to be able to cover. In the RPOs, you’ve got to be able to defend the run and obviously you’ve got to handle all those conflict situations when either the running back or the quaterback’s going to carry the ball.”
Brown, who spoke with Belichick and Jerod Mayo about McGrone during the predraft process (“They’re very thorough,” he said) pointed to McGrone’s instincts as another key asset in his arsenal, but he marvels most at his blinding speed.
“Well, he can fly,” said Brown. “I mean, I don’t know many guys are faster from Point A to Point B than him, when he’s healthy. He can flat-out run. That’s the biggest that I see … and his ability to think on his feet when the game’s going at a fast pace. He’s a good player.”
Bledsoe’s rookie campaign also began with him being placed on the non-football injury list after he suffered a broken wrist during Senior Bowl week, an injury that required a pair of surgeries.
Like McGrone, Bledsoe started practicing with the club in late November and impressed Belichick and the staff enough during that he was eventually activated to the 53-man roster.
Fellow safety McCourty said Bledsoe’s diligence in off-field preparations allowed the rookie to hit the ground running once his practice window opened.
“For me, it’s been impressive seeing him get on the field and how fast he’s played — executing and understanding techniques,” McCourty said in December. “That comes from you obviously [being] locked in. Paying attention in meetings, going home, re-watching film.
“It’s hard for any player to not get reps and go execute, but when you’re a rookie, you have zero base, zero foundation of reps.”
Unfortunately for Bledsoe, a calf injury cost him an opportunity to contribute, and he was placed on injured reserve prior to Week 16.
Bledsoe, a sixth-round selection, flashed versatility during his college time at Missouri, covering top talent in the Southeastern Conference, the country’s top league. He could play a similar hybrid role made popular in New England by Patrick Chung and lately by Adrian Phillips.
He’s a solidly built 5-11, 201 pounds with the twitchiness to play against the slot receivers and the strength to drag tight ends across the middle.
Perkins’s rookie year was unique. He was healthy until a knee problem forced a season-ending trip to IR, but he never suited up for game action because of the depth ahead of him.
A very productive edge rusher at Oklahoma, Perkins has an exceptionally high motor, and despite not having any game snaps in more than a year, his developmental time in the program will allow him to take off quickly when the offseason program begins.