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The Analytics Crowd Recognizes Josh Uche Has Become One of the NFL's Best Pass Rushers. It's Science.

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For the most part the major focus of Patriots Camp: 2023 has been on the passing game. Which is only natural. Under even the most normal circumstances, the quarterback and receivers are to practices what Tom Cruise's stunts are in a Mission: Impossible sequel. You can be fine with the talky parts, Simon Pegg hacking into some firewall, and the 3-D mask printer dealy. But we're all sitting there waiting for Ethan Hunt to get 5,000 feet in the air doing something stupid and reckless to get some thing to stop some arsehole from killing some people for some reason you can't keep track of. 

After all, no one keeps stats on how many rushing yards the backs have or how many simulated tackles the defenders had. But half the people covering Pats practices track the passing totals. And by all accounts, Mac Jones not only had his best day so far:

… he's been achieving his and Belichick's stated goal of stringing good practices together:

But despite the fact I'm doing nothing but talking about the passing attack, I'm not here to talk about the passing attack. I'm here to talk about the attack on other team's passing. Most specifically Josh Uche.

Pro Football Focus (paywall) has posted their rankings in the highly specific category "Three Most Impressive Under the Radar Young Edge Rushers" in the league. And Uche made the cut. After profiling the Cowboys Sam Williams and James Houston IV of the Lions, they had this to say about the Pats' 24 year old rush specialist:

Saving the best for last, if it weren't for his part-time role, Uche would likely already be regarded as a top pass-rusher in the NFL, as he is fresh off a season when he ranked seventh among NFL edge defenders (min. 100 pass-rush snaps) in pass-rush win rate (19.2%) while his 20.7% pressure rate ranked third. …

Uche's ability to win multiple ways puts opposing offensive tackles in quite a pickle, as they have to be ready to defend a variety of moves on any given snap when lined up across from the former second-round pick. Uche can win with speed around the corner, convert speed-to-power and counter inside with equal effectiveness. …

And despite his size, Uche does a great job absorbing and bending through contact at the apex of his rush as well (as illustrated above).

Uche's 87.8 pass-rush grade is helped by the fact that he's essentially playing in a part-time role; however, don't get it twisted, that “part-time” role is incredibly valuable for the Patriots defense, and luckily for New England, Uche's pass-rush production shouldn't slow down anytime soon given his advanced skill set.

Even acknowledging that, as I mentioned, Uche is a situational edge rusher and not a 3-down end yet - which PFF does - he's seen his snap count go up each year of his career, from 179 as a rookie to more than double, 373, last year. And his pass rush snaps have almost tripled, from 99 in 2020 to 285 in 2022. Which is understandable, given his PFF pass rush grade of 87.8 was good for 8th best in the league. 

And analytics from the Mathletes aside, he consistently passed the eye test last year, after merely occasionally flashing brilliance in his first two seasons. He drew attention from no less an authority than a Twitter/X account dedicated entirely to breaking down film on defensive linemen:

To put his ability to defeat blocks off the edge in perspective, Uche had almost as many pressures (41) as DeMarcus Lawrence (43), despite having 193 fewer pass rush snaps. And three more pressures than the Patriots best player in 2022, Matthew Judon, despite having 195 fewer chances. 

Though at the risk of making myself into the guy who drops a deuce at a party that only has one bathroom, therein lies the problem with Uche. He is a specialist. Which is useful to have if this happens to be your skillset. It's the sort of specialty people have demanded Belichick draft or sign for years. I mean, how often during the offseason do you hear variations on the same cliches about how they need a guy who'll pin his ears back, be disruptive, move [insert nemesis QB's name here] off his spot, and make it easier on the secondary blah, blah, blah. And he has never gone for that kind of player on the outside. Once he determines an end can't be counted on to hold his ground against the run, set the edge on outside rushes and contain a mobile quarterback, or drop into coverage, that guy is gone. Just look at Chandler Jones for one example among many. 

Uche is the exception. At least he is right now, as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. He's definitely a player a defensive coordinator has to hide - or at least provide help to - because teams will run at him. In pass coverage he gave up six receptions in six targets last year, and according to PFF has a career passer rating against of 146.5. Which is so awful it has to be a math error or a typo. 

But Uche's spot on this roster, as well as his increased playing time, seems like a concession to the way the game is evolving. That you can't have everyone on your defense be pretty good at a lot of different stuff. Somebody has to be great at something. That is this player and this particular set of skills. 

If I had to guess (and I've painted myself into this rhetorical corner so I will), I'd bet that Uche will hit free agency and get offered a dump truck filled with money to be someone else's pass rushing specialist. But that's a worry for Future Jerry and Future You. And they can feck themselves. For this season coming up, let's just enjoy watching an amazing young talent continue to emerge. The nerds have spoken. 

Giphy Images.