10 mid-week thoughts on 10 Patriots as they prepare for the Jets

The health of the offensive line continues to be the Patriots' biggest concern on the field.

Isaiah Wynn Patriots training camp
Patriots offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn at training camp. –AP Photo/Steven Senne

COMMENTARY

Ten mid-week thoughts on 10 Patriots as they prepare for the Jets’ third quarterback …

Isaiah Wynn will miss at least eight weeks after a toe injury caused the Patriots to place him on injured reserve, and in a corresponding move the club signed former Buccaneer Caleb Benenoch. He’s the sixth offensive lineman the Pats have traded for or signed to the active roster since the day of their last preseason game (August 29), and as of Wednesday morning five of those players were still with the team. Of the four who’ve been on the club since the start of training camp, Marcus Cannon has already missed a game because of a shoulder injury, and Ted Karras is only starting because of David Andrews’s season-spoiling health issues. Dante Scarnecchia or not, New England is nearing crisis territory up front — if it’s not already there.

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N’Keal Harry is already on IR and, like Wynn, will miss at least half the season. Until they return and contribute, Sony Michel will be the only first-round pick of the past seven drafts contributing to the 2019 Patriots — a team that certainly doesn’t appear to lack talent. In Bill Belichick’s first decade-plus, he routinely hit on first rounders, which helped him form the foundation of this dynasty, but recently the long-term impact of those picks has been negligible. Given that, in combination with their needs along the offensive line, if all it takes to acquire disgruntled left tackle Trent Williams from the Redskins would be a first-round pick, that’s a price worth paying.

Marshall Newhouse may be the definition of a journeyman offensive lineman, considering the Patriots are his eighth team in a 10-year pro career. But ingratiating himself in Foxborough is off to a good start. The coaches had to love that, three days after signing, he played every snap under tough conditions at Miami, and had the versatility to do it at both right and left tackle. The media will quickly fall for any Patriot who’s glib enough to equate flipping sides of the line to “wiping with the other hand.” And, if he’s as much a character as his first week has suggested, the fans tend to appreciate seeing some personality, too. So long as he keeps Tom Brady upright.

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Marcus Cannon’s shoulder injury didn’t prevent him from traveling to Miami, or from working out on the field before the game — or from providing some humorous physical comedy as he heard Newhouse telling reporters that he’d learned 80 percent of the Pats’ playbook in his three days of service. Cannon’s in the background of this video tweeted by NESN’s Zack Cox.

Stephen Gostkowski is the Patriots kicker, and it’s hard to envision that changing this season when the alternatives are considered. Yes, it might be tough for New England fans to trust him in the wake of missing three kicks at Miami — but is there another kicker available that the Patriots faithful would feel fully confident in trying a field goal with the game on the line? It’s more likely that Gostkowski will respond well than that the team would find a more reliable alternative. That all said, if the Pats return to Miami for the Super Bowl, don’t be surprised if Belichick seems aggressive with fourth downs on the plus side of the field.

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Michael Bennett has played fewer than half of the Patriots’ defensive snaps through two weeks (48.1 percent), although that limited usage is likely more telling of what New England’s coaching staff is doing in the front seven than it is of Bennett’s performance. In the third preseason game, and now through two real games, the Pats have heavily rotated both players and schemes with their defensive linemen and linebackers. In fact, at this point Bennett is one of five at those spots to play between 40 percent and 50 percent of the defensive snaps, joining Chase Winovich, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Adam Butler, and John Simon. Shilique Calhoun (61 percent) is the only lineman who has been on the field more, while regular contributors Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Elandon Roberts, and Deatrich Wise are all under 30 percent. It makes for fresh bodies, multiple formations, and a lot of pressure on opposing offenses.

Jason McCourty is the outside cornerback the Steelers and Dolphins have most often chosen to pick on early, but the veteran has been up to the challenge. Of the 16 passes thrown in his direction, only seven have been completed. Add Jonathan Jones’s seven completions in 15 targets against, plus J.C. Jackson’s four of nine, and opponents are 18 of 40 when trying to throw on a Patriots corner other than Stephon Gilmore.

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Antonio Brown’s status could change at any time, with the league’s investigation of sexual assault allegations against him now underway, and the possibility of placement on the commissioner’s exempt list looming. That type of perpetual uncertainty doesn’t seem to fit the preferred mode of operations for the Patriots, who pride themselves on preparing game plans specific to the coming week. The Cowboys went through something similar when Ezekiel Elliott was fighting an on-again, off-again, six-game suspension through the first half of 2017 — and did well with that portion of the challenge. When Ezekiel’s ban finally kicked in, they’d played eight games and were averaging 28.5 points per tilt. However, in the first three games without him, the Cowboys scored 22 points total. Based on that example, the disruption to the Patriots may not be preparing for games not knowing whether Brown will be allowed to play. Rather, it might be things dragging out long enough that they get used to relying on him, and then suddenly need to figure out how to live without him.

Matthew Slater was part of the Patriots’ offensive personnel on Sunday, attempting to seal the edge as a blocker in a goal-line package. It’s a role the special teams ace has occasionally played in the past, and one that might be more regular given the suddenly star-powered nature of the Patriots’ receiving corps — but given Slater’s age and recent injury history, and in the more-you-can-do sense that shapes the bottom of a roster, maybe that’s a job more suited to Gunner Olszewski in the future? After 20- and 15-yard returns against Pittsburgh, his contribution in Miami was limited to nine yards on three returns, plus three fair catches.

Matt LaCosse made two catches at Miami, good for 33 yards — but the grab that forced him to go low with his hands as he moved laterally was distinctly Gronk-like. And enough to instill confidence that the Pats may get contributions out of the tight end position in the passing game, too.