Raekwon McMillan, revamped linebacker group among keys to Patriots' season

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. McMillan in middle: When the Patriots lined up in their nickel defense on the first day reporters were present for spring practices, Raekwon McMillan was a top linebacker.

It was a reminder of significant personnel turnover. Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins Sr. and Kyle Van Noy are no longer with the team. And while some viewed linebacker as a top need, the Patriots surprisingly passed on the position entirely in the draft.

So that had them lining up McMillan next to thumper Ja'Whaun Bentley as an initial inside linebacker pairing. Josh Uche and trade acquisition Mack Wilson took reps as well. And 2021 fifth-round pick Cameron McGrone projects to be in the mix (he was limited in the spring by an undisclosed ailment), with Jahlani Tavai and Harvey Langi also on the depth chart.

McMillan's standing highlights the uncertainty -- and intrigue -- with coach Bill Belichick's linebacker plans. The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Ohio State alum could land anywhere from a starter to competing for a roster spot.

In the perfect Patriots world, he will turn back the clock to 2017, when the Miami Dolphins selected him in the second round.

ESPN NFL analyst Mike Tannenbaum was Miami's vice president of football operations at the time, and he remembers the scouting report well.

"A tough, physical player. A little bit of a throwback. Very instinctive. Good tackler. Very smart and conscientious. Football is very important to him," he said.

But McMillan tore his right ACL covering a punt in the team's first preseason game that year and missed his rookie season. He returned to start every game in 2018, then played in 13 contests (12 starts) under new head coach Brian Flores in 2019 before landing on IR with a hamstring injury.

The Dolphins traded him to the Raiders in the offseason for fourth- and fifth-round picks, but McMillan was more of a role player in 2020 -- playing in every game but with just four starts. While those around the Raiders viewed him as smart, tough and a high-end leader, his limitations in space were a factor in his minimal role.

After signing a modest one-year deal as a free agent with the Patriots in 2021, and being praised by Belichick early in training camp, McMillan tore his left ACL covering a kickoff in practice. That wiped out his season entirely, setting up this year's comeback attempt.

"It's been a long year for me, but we're moving forward," McMillan said in May. "After sitting back and watching, I'm ready to go."

Added Tannenbaum: "I would bet on his character and work ethic and love of game. He's really smart. You just hope he can stay healthy."

2. Uche's fit: Where Uche fits in the linebacker group looks like a moving target based on spring practices. He worked off the line and on the line, and assistant coach Steve Belichick previously referred to him as "an important piece to the puzzle." The 2020 second-round pick from Michigan played just three snaps in the playoff loss to Buffalo (not including kneel-downs) as a niche pass-rusher (his primary role in 2021), and his ability to take on a larger role with responsibilities in pass coverage could be critical.

3. Andrews' accounting: The Patriots needed to create some cap space to sign the remainder of their draft class, and restructuring center David Andrews' contract provided the relief. It was a win-win scenario, with Andrews getting money now that would have been paid to him later and the team creating $2.1 million in space. There was no new money as part of the restructure.

4. Parker's impact: Tannenbaum knows new Patriots receiver DeVante Parker well from having selected him in the first round of the 2015 draft in Miami. What might Parker bring to New England?

"You're getting someone who can win on the outside. Big catch radius and good at high-pointing the ball. Really effective with in-breaking routes and in the red zone," he said. "He's a very likeable, fun-loving person who is a great teammate -- always smiling, never had a bad day.

"Injuries have been a problem, and you just hope he can put it together for 17 games. I wouldn't say his play speed is elite, but [if healthy] he's a very good starting NFL receiver who can be scoring eight to 12 touchdowns and making contested catches."

5. Cargile at forum: Director of pro scouting Steve Cargile represented the Patriots at the second annual Ozzie Newsome General Manager Forum on Tuesday in Los Angeles. The goal of the forum is to connect current and aspiring executives while providing a platform to help prepare, educate and identify quality minority candidates. Commissioner Roger Goodell opened by talking about growing the "pipeline of executives" with a goal of hopefully not having to host such forums in 20 years. Cargile, 40, enters his 12th season in New England, having worked his way up from an initial role as a scouting assistant.

6. Lynch's lesson: 49ers general manager John Lynch played for the Buccaneers (1993-2003) and Broncos (2004-07), then had a brief offseason stint with the Patriots (2008), and it was that last stop that he cited when speaking at the "Preparing for a GM interview" panel on Tuesday.

Lynch was discussing player development and the importance of having everyone on the same page when he said: "There has to be buy-in across the organization. It doesn't just stop at personnel and coaching. It's your trainers. Your strength coaches. Your engagement people. Your community people. It's a real holistic approach if you really want it to be successful, because you can learn from each person.

"[Players] get pulled in a lot of different directions; everyone wants to give them advice on their careers. But if you're not tethered, sometimes that can be a detriment ... and the approach can become scattered.

"That's the Patriots. Yeah, they had Tom Brady, and that made a difference. But there are little subtle things, and I got exposed to that. I never ended up playing for them that year because I retired, but I did see things like player development [being] at the core of their success. Everyone was speaking the same language and giving that player the same message."

7. Throwback jerseys: The Patriots are 9-3 in their throwback uniforms, which are making a comeback in 2022 after a decade-long absence. The last loss when wearing red throwbacks was to the Dolphins -- 22-21 on Dec. 6, 2009 -- when Brady had long TD passes to Randy Moss (58 yards) and Sam Aiken (81) but the team blew a 21-10 second-half lead against QB Chad Henne and Miami.

8. They said it: "High performance, I think we mistake what that actually looks like in the NFL. New England is a massive outlier -- [playing in] nine Super Bowls in 18 years; that will never be done again. ... You think about the great pairs. I think New Orleans did an amazing job -- Sean Payton and Drew Brees. They went to one Super Bowl. You look at Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, a well-run organization. One Super Bowl. Baltimore, with Ozzie and one of the best-run organizations -- two Super Bowls in the past 20. Making a Super Bowl is hard. Part of the struggle is we hold that as the ultimate goal. But building a winning culture can be year after year -- are you competitive?" -- Kevin Demoff, chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Rams, at the Ozzie Newsome GM Forum

9. Stueber's absence: Bill Belichick said during June's mandatory minicamp that rookie offensive linemen Chasen Hines (sixth round) and Andrew Stueber (seventh round) weren't ready to practice but didn't disclose why. Fast-forward to this past Wednesday at the New England Patriots Alumni Club "Football for You" clinic, and the entire rookie class was there -- except for Stueber. It remains unclear what might be holding him back.

10. Did You Know: Rob Gronkowski's teams had a record of 128-37 in the 165 games he played (including playoffs), which is the second-best team winning percentage (.776) for a player in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau (minimum 150 games).

The only player with a better winning percentage was former Patriots and Broncos center Dan Koppen (.781). Patriots left tackle Matt Light (.771), receiver Julian Edelman (.769), Packers/Dolphins tight end Marv Fleming (.763) and Brady (.763) with the Patriots and Bucs complete the top six.