Amendola ankle injury brings Patriots punt-return situation into focus


FOXBORO -- The Patriots have a situation brewing when it comes to who on their roster is returning punts. 

To start Sunday's 26-10 win over the Rams, it was rookie second-round pick Cyrus Jones who was given the first crack. As he tracked Johnny Hekker's 44-yard boot in the first quarter, he quickly waived for a fair catch, then muffed it. Patriots safety Patrick Chung was in the right place at the right time to fall on the football and retain possession, but Bill Belichick and his staff decided to make a change the next time around. 

When Hekker took the field again, Jones was off, and Danny Amendola was on. 


The veteran receiver and return man secured a couple of tricky floaters, including 61 and 55-yarders off the foot of the player Belichick termed "a weapon" last week, but Amendola suffered an ankle injury late in the third quarter. He hopped off the field on one leg, went to the locker room and did not return. He was later spotted in the Patriots locker room wearing a protective boot and using crutches.

After Amendola went down, the Patriots had the option of using Julian Edelman -- one of the most productive punt returners in the history of the league -- but Jones was given another shot, returning the first Rams punt of the fourth quarter 11 yards. 

Jones has had difficulty securing punts since training camp, but one of the reasons he was drafted in the second round was because when he has the football in his hands, he has the quickness, vision and speed to turn in explosive plays. As a senior at Alabama, he returned four punts for scores. 


If Amendola is forced to miss time down the stretch, the Patriots could have a difficult choice to make: Continue to trust Jones despite his occasional lapses in ball-security, or turn to Edelman. 

The gut call may be to deploy Edelman, but there is a drawback to using him extensively in the kicking game. Even if he sees only a handful of additional touches per game as a returner, it's more wear and tear on a 30-year-old player who will be leaned on heavily with Rob Gronkowski out for the remainder of the season. Over the last three weeks with Gronkowski out for all but seven plays against the Jets, Edelman has 24 catches on a whopping 40 targets.

After Edelman, Jones and Amendola, there aren't many other punt-return options for the Patriots on the roster.

Chung may be the next man up. He returned one punt for the Patriots last year and returned 16 in college. Malcolm Mitchell (11 punt returns in college), Devin McCourty (5), Malcolm Butler (4) and Matthew Slater (1) all have some experience in that role, but not at the professional level. It might be asking too much for any of them to take on a new job at this point in the season. 

For a team so focused on field position and execution in the kicking game, how the Patriots handle their punt-return role moving forward bears watching. 

Other injury notes: Patriots corner Eric Rowe left the game in the second half with a hamstring injury and did not return. He indicated after the game that he wasn't sure when the injury occurred. He said he did not believe it was serious . . . Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower went down in the third quarter after absorbing a chop block from Rams running back Todd Gurley. He walked off the field under his own power, and after wearing a wrap on his right knee on the bench, he returned to the field for the next Rams offensive drive. The defensive captain was seen in the locker room after the game walking without any noticeable limp . . . Special teams captain Matthew Slater was in the Patriots locker room with a boot on his left foot. He was ruled inactive before the game. Slater practiced on Wednesday and Thursday of last week but sat out of Friday's session. He missed his team's Week 12 game against the Jets after suffering a foot injury against the Niners in Week 11.