FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A behind-the-scenes, 21-day stretch late last season could ultimately determine whether the New England Patriots made the correct evaluation with their linebacker position this year.
Cameron McGrone's return from injury and three-week practice stint from Nov. 23 to Dec. 14 sparked optimism, and ultimately the belief that linebacker wasn't as glaring a need as some reporters (hand raised) believed it to be.
"It was exciting to have him on the field last year for those couple weeks," said Steve Belichick, the defense's primary playcaller and one of the Patriots' linebackers coaches.
"One thing I noticed, all the other guys on the field had been playing football for months, and he had been coming off a year of not playing football. But he didn't look, in any sort of way, out of place on the field. I thought that was impressive."
The Patriots selected McGrone in the fifth round of the 2021 draft out of Michigan, knowing he probably wouldn't play for them as a rookie because he was recovering from a torn left ACL. But he's healthy now, and has been since he was cleared to practice Nov. 23.
McGrone reverted to IR after his three-week practice stint, in part because the team didn't have a roster spot for him with veterans such as Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Kyle Van Noy ahead of him on the depth chart.
The 6-foot-1, 236-pound McGrone is one of the Patriots' intriguing-but-unproven players as the unit looks to recover from a lackluster finish to the 2021 season that included, among other things, the inability to force the Buffalo Bills to punt in each of New England's last two games against them.
Could he be an effective starter in the middle? Is he more of a sub-package option? Or possibly more of a special-teamer who adds depth on defense?
Anything seems possible, with director of player personnel Matt Groh calling him "kind of an additional draft pick" after the Patriots didn't select any linebackers in the 2022 draft. Groh added that injecting the soon-to-be-22-year-old McGrone into the mix contributes to the goal of becoming younger and faster.
"He plays fast, he has good speed and he showed some good instincts out there in practice," Steve Belichick said. "He looked like he belonged out there with everybody else."
Added fellow linebackers coach Jerod Mayo: "What I did see out there last year was a guy who could fly around, make a lot of plays in the run game and the pass game. We'll have to see how it goes, but at the end of the day, we're expecting him to help the [linebacker] room."
A three-year letterman at Michigan who appeared in 19 games, with 15 starts at middle linebacker, McGrone totaled 92 tackles, 4.5 sacks, one pass defended and one forced fumble during his college career.
When the Patriots selected him 177th overall last year, head coach Bill Belichick noted how he had stepped in for linebacker Devin Bush (the No. 10 overall pick in 2019 by the Steelers) at Michigan and said: "There's plenty of football in McGrone, plenty against good competition as well. He's been a productive player on a good defense. ... He's going to be a good player."
McGrone joins returning starter Bentley (a run-first defender), trade acquisition Mack Wilson and 2021 returnees Raekwon McMillan (coming back from a torn left ACL), Jahlani Tavai and Harvey Langi at a revamped inside linebacker position.
"Cam did a great job staying engaged in the classroom when he couldn't go on the field [last year]. This year, I would say he's healthy, back out here running around, he looks good and he's also picking up the defense," Mayo said.
"But it's one thing to look good right now in shorts. We have to carry this into training camp and to the season."