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Cameron McGrone is Patriots' latest gamble on prospect with medical risk

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the most notable things coach Bill Belichick said at the conclusion of the 2021 NFL draft was the New England Patriots are prepared for fifth-round pick Cameron McGrone to miss his rookie season.

McGrone, the linebacker from Michigan who in a best-case scenario could potentially succeed Dont'a Hightower at the heart of the defense, sustained a torn ACL in a Nov. 21 win.

"We're not really sure what the expectation of availability is for him, but we're prepared certainly to not have him available this year," Belichick said. "There are no false expectations here. He should have a good recovery and be a good player; we'll just have to see what the timing is on that."

This isn't the first time the Patriots have selected a player with the idea they might not initially see him on the field. The longer-range vision reflects how Belichick, now in his 21st season as coach, balances current roster needs and an always-keeping-an-eye-on-the-future approach.

Patience, and the willingness to assume some medical risk, can be rewarded in big ways.

One of the greatest examples in franchise history was running back Curtis Martin, the Patriots' third-round pick in 1995 whose final season at the University of Pittsburgh was limited to two games because of an ankle injury. He eventually ran right into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, albeit having spent the majority of his career with the New York Jets.

As for those drafted in Belichick's tenure (2000-present), the results of players whom McGrone follows has been mixed (listed by most recent):

Yodny Cajuste, OT, 2019 Round 3 (No. 101)

The former West Virginia player had quad surgery three weeks before the 2019 draft, and while initial reports indicated he might miss three months, he ended up being placed on the reserve/non-football injury list in August and didn't play as a rookie. He also didn't play in 2020, landing on injured reserve in September because of a knee injury, which sets the 2021 season up as make-or-break for him.

The 6-foot-5, 310-pound Cajuste had been a three-year starter in college, playing in 31 games, with 30 starts. He had suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener of his sophomore year.

Sony Michel, RB, 2018 Round 1 (31)

Michel's production in his final season at Georgia was never in question, as he had run for a career-high 1,227 yards and scored 16 touchdowns while averaging 7.9 yards per carry. But some teams reportedly had some concerns about a torn ACL that he suffered in high school and a knee injury in 2017 during the SEC title game against Auburn.

While Michel missed some time in training camp his rookie season after undergoing a procedure to drain fluid from the knee, and later injured the knee after getting twisted on a tackle, he missed only three games that season while playing a leading role in the team’s Super Bowl championship season. Overall, he has played in 38 of a possible 48 regular-season games, as well as four playoff contests. The team declined his fifth-year option for 2022.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, 2016 Round 4 (112)

Unlike some others on the list, Mitchell was healthy enough to participate in the Senior Bowl entering the draft, and he had played in every game his final season at Georgia. Some scouts had questions about his future durability, following multiple knee injuries suffered in college.

Those concerns ultimately derailed Mitchell's career after 16 total games (six starts), but not before he played an instrumental role in the Patriots' 2016 Super Bowl championship season, with an epic performance in the second half of Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons.

Dominique Easley, DT, 2014 Round 1 (29)

The Patriots projected that Easley's knee issues at Florida wouldn't follow him to the NFL after he tore one ACL at the end of his sophomore season and tore the other ACL during practice in the third week of his senior season. If not for the injuries, the disruptive Easley likely wouldn't have been available to New England late in the first round. But Easley ended up playing 22 games (three starts) over two seasons before the Patriots released him in 2016.

Marcus Cannon, OT, 2011 Round 5 (138)

Had it not been for a non-Hodgkins lymphoma diagnosis leading into the 2011 draft, Cannon likely never would have lasted until the fifth round. He opened his Patriots career on the reserve/non-injury list and wasn't activated until Nov. 15 of his rookie season, which was the springboard to a solid, productive Patriots career at right tackle. His nine-year pro career included 115 regular-season games (69 starts), 19 playoff games (11 starts), and three Super Bowl championships.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, 2010 Round 2 (42)

The bonanza of all bonanzas. Gronkowski had missed his entire junior season at Arizona in 2009 after suffering a back injury that required surgery. His medical situation led to some teams taking him off their draft boards entirely, but the Patriots felt comfortable early in the second round and traded up two spots to secure the tight end.

In 2013, while speaking on Sirius XM NFL Radio, former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian highlighted the situation when he said: "I remember our [medical personnel] explaining to us what the significance of a disc injury is and how that left you susceptible to further injury -- and if there was further injury there was likely surgery and that it didn't bode well for longer careers."

Gronkowski, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has defied those odds, putting together a Hall of Fame caliber career.

Brandon Tate, WR, 2009 Round 3 (83)

A dynamic return man at North Carolina early in his career, Tate was putting together a solid senior season that could have resulted in him being one of the top wide receivers in the 2009 class before tearing an ACL and MCL with seven games left in the season. Because he was rehabbing the injury, he didn't work out at the NFL combine that year.

Having already selected four players in the second round in 2009 -- defensive backs Patrick Chung and Darius Butler, defensive tackle Ron Brace and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer -- the Patriots drafted the speedy Tate midway through the third round. Tate opened his rookie season on the non-football injury list before being activated in Week 7. After two games, he landed on IR again because of a knee injury before emerging the following season (two kickoff returns for TDs; 24 receptions, 432 yards, three TDs).

But he was released prior to the 2011 campaign and went on to have his greatest success with the Cincinnati Bengals (2011-15) as a return specialist.

Antwoine Womack, RB, 2002 Round 7 (237)

The Virginia running back had totaled an ACC-best 1,028 rushing yards as a junior in 2000, but the following season he suffered a high ankle sprain in the opener that required surgery and sidelined him for seven games. The Patriots took a late flier on him, but Womack never appeared in a regular-season game for the team.