Patriots

How will Patriots fill the void left by Hightower's season-ending injury?

How will Patriots fill the void left by Hightower's season-ending injury?

Now that we know Dont'a Hightower has a torn pectoral muscle, the focus will shift to the remaining pieces in Bill Belichick's front seven. How can you replace a player with the experience and the unique physical skill set that Hightower brought to the field? 

Make no mistake. There's not a one-for-one substitution to be made. It will require a many-hands-make-light-work approach.

Hightower began the season playing primarily as an edge defender, giving the Patriots a boost to their pass-rushing personnel after Derek Rivers sustained a torn ACL during training camp and Rob Ninkovich retired. But a move back to the linebacker level in recent weeks seems to have solidified the team's communication. Hightower was the most experienced front-seven player on the Patriots roster, and having him in the middle of the field made his teammates' lives a little easier on a snap-to-snap basis.

So let's start there. When it comes to fill-ins at the second level, there are a few. Kyle Van Noy will likely shoulder more of the communication in Hightower's absence. He is already a three-down player, so he won't see any kind of significant up-tick in playing time. But when it comes to helping direct traffic he could be the new go-to guy. Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of his trade to New England from Detroit, and he told NBC Sports Boston that he's come a long way since Oct. 25, 2016 at 1 p.m.

"I feel like I've started to understand what's going on more in the defense," Van Noy said. "I'm able to change things and just be looked upon more as a leader since I've been here a year. But many think I've been here my whole career since I'm able to know the defense pretty well and the ins and outs of it. It was stressful when I first got here. Big difference now."

Van Noy also has some experience as an edge defender and so perhaps Hightower's injury will force him down to take more snaps at the end of the line of scrimmage. He picked up a half-sack in the Super Bowl running a stunt as a defensive lineman. 

MORE ON DONT'A HIGHTOWER

The next option at the second level would likely be Elandon Roberts, who missed Sunday's win over the Falcons with an ankle injury and was limited in Wednesday's practice. He's shown to be a proficient run defender in his first year-plus as a pro, but he's still developing in the passing game as a touchdown allowed to Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins showed.

That aspect of the defense may be where Shea McClellin is able to chip in. McClellin is still on injured reserve, but he began practicing last week and is eligible to return to action following New England's Week 9 bye. A versatile piece for Belichick and Matt Patricia, McClellin has experience both at the linebacker level and as a pass-rusher. With Hightower out, McClellin could potentially see more time going up the field to disrupt opposing quarterbacks, but his length and athleticism make him an option in coverage as well. 

Then there's David Harris. The possibility of this situation arising -- with the Patriots losing Hightower for an extended period of time -- was why many believed Harris was here in the first place. Should Hightower be out, the thinking went, Harris could step in and provide stability and savvy in the middle of the Patriots defense. It may not work out that way given that Harris has found himself behind Van Noy and Roberts on the linebacker depth chart this season, but the 33-year-old played a season-high 19 snaps against the Falcons last weekend and performed well. Perhaps he's earned himself more snaps moving forward in Hightower's absence. Belichick has praised Harris several times this season for his professionalism

The Patriots called-up linebacker Trevor Reilly on Wednesday from the practice squad, though his experience is more in the kicking game. Same goes for Marquis Flowers, who has played 24 defensive snaps this season, but has served mostly as a core special-teamer.

When it comes to the void left on the edge, the Patriots could turn to ends Cassius Marsh and Deatrich Wise to take on bigger workloads if the team opts to use Van Noy and McClellin primarily as off-the-line players. After that, who knows? The trade deadline is less than a week away. And if nothing works out on that front, maybe the Patriots can dial up Ninkovich. On this week's Quick Slants the Podcast, Jerod Mayo suggested they do exactly that:

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Gronk question now makes tight end a position of need

Gronk question now makes tight end a position of need

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today. we're looking at a position where the Patriots have arguably the best player that’s ever manned it in his presumed prime. But tight end is suddenly a tenuous spot for New England.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


This became – contrary to the Patriots hopes – a one-man position. Rob Gronkowski had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. The rest of the tight ends – Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister and Martellus Bennett – combined for 20 catches and six of those came from Bennett who played just two games before heading to injured reserve. Gronk was – and is – the best tight end in the game and one of its most dominating offensive weapons. After losing Julian Edelman in the preseason, the Patriots offense became tremendously Gronk-reliant. They got away with it. But they clearly wanted more from Dwayne Allen than what they got or they wouldn’t have gone after Bennett when he became available.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Martellus Bennett, Will Tye, Jacob Hollister

WHO IS NOT?
All tight ends on the roster are under contract.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Publicity grab or legitimate consideration? What exactly to make of Gronk’s reported dalliance with the WWE and his idle desire to be an action movie star (also reported)? Both have the earmarks of brand-building genius. It’s a page torn from the business plans of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Sugar Ray Leonard or Conor McGregor – ruminating on retirement and expressing interest in other public pursuits exponentially ratchets up public interest in both the main gig and the potential side gig. Gronk himself might not be that savvy and calculating to mildly hold the Patriots fortunes hostage but Gronk Inc. certainly is. Then again, maybe he legitimately is weighing it. The “will he or won’t he” conversation will sustain buzz and has to in some way impact the Patriots’ offseason plans. The presumption has to be that Gronk returns but this is anything but a layup. Which means the need is a Level-8

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There is a nice crop of tight ends hitting the market. Virtually all of them come with the same nagging health issues that Gronk has (had). Jimmy Graham is the biggest name in the group. His tepid blocking skills may make him unattractive to the Patriots, but never let it be said the Pats don’t like to take a flier on a once-electric player who’s on the backside. At 31, Graham’s coming off a 10-touchdown season, though his yards per catch went down to 9.1. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see New England pursue. The Eagles' second tight end, Trey Burton, is 26 and stuck behind Zach Ertz. An undrafted rookie, the kid who threw the touchdown pass to Nick Foles in the Super Bowl is targeted sparingly in Philly but is a smooth player. He also plays special teams (boing!). Austin Sefarian-Jenkins finally got his stuff together with the Jets in 2017 and he’s only 25. He’s no dummy, he’s only acted like one in the past and it seems like he’s got a handle on it now. He’d need face-to-face vetting but he’s got upside. Then there’s Tyler Eifert. Still just 27, Eifert’s played in 10 games the past two seasons and had season-ending back surgery in the fall (it was performed by the same doctor who treated Gronk). He’s played 39 games in five seasons. Terrific talent. Always broken.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


I like this Dallas Goedert kid from South Dakota State. Also, Dalton Schultz from Stanford gets checkmarks as a blocker and competent receiver. Neither of them are first-round prospects at this point. Hayden Hurst from South Carolina and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews are regarded as the top prospects. Hurst is a very good pass-catcher with a huge catch radius. He’s a 24-year-old former Pittsburgh Pirates draftee. Andrews is smooth as a receiver but not seen as a potent blocker. Same with Mike Gesicki from Penn State who’s the best athlete along with Hurst but doesn’t impress with his blocking.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Assuming Gronk is returning, the Patriots can go at it a number of ways. There’s not a “can’t miss” prospect out there, so drafting Hurst or Gesicki in the first couple of rounds means they’ll have to live with the shortcomings or hope they can improve them. Given other needs, they may not want to spend on “maybes” near the top of the draft. Too many drafts have been like that, especially with second-rounders. It seems unlikely they’ll be really interested in counting on either Allen or Bennett to provide anything in 2018. If they take a run at the Eagles’ Burton and pay him a crapload, Gronk will lose his mind. Screw it. They should take Hurst. We will change our minds several times between now and April but that’s where we are now.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Julian Edelman posts video of resistance-band training

patriots_julian_edelman_082517.jpg
File Photo

Julian Edelman posts video of resistance-band training

Julian Edelman is grinding.

The New England Patriots receiver, who is recovering from an ACL repair surgery that ended his 2017 season, shared a quick video from his workout on Tuesday. Edelman is shown running with a resistance band and a trainer in-tow.

Edelman has posted a few tidbits on social media to show encouraging signs during his recovery since he got surgery in October after suffering an ACL tear in a preseason game. He was spotted around the locker room a few times during the final weeks of the 2017 season.

"Rehab is a [expletive]. It sucks," Edelman said in November on Barstool Sports' "Pardon My Take podcast." "You go in and you’re feeling decent and then you warm up, you beat it up and then you get stiff again. I mean it’s just a process and you go in six days a week and you’re going into work it, work on everything — your flexion, your extension."