Patriots

Patriots are just winging it with their offensive personnel

Patriots are just winging it with their offensive personnel

The release of Josh Gordon is confounding for an offense that’s still trying to figure out what it is as Halloween approaches.

You get the feeling there are other shoes to drop? Yeah, me too. Maybe it’s been because they’ve been dropping all year, we’re just conditioned to expect it.

Maybe it’s because there’s a master plan being executed that — when finished — will make us say, “Ohhhh, THAT’S what they were trying to do!”

Let’s get it straight with Gordon. He wasn’t great, but he was damn useful. In 16 games with the Patriots he had 59 catches for 1,000 yards on the dot. He played with toughness. He made contested catches. He was their best threat to score from deep.

He was nothing close to the 2013 Josh Gordon we remembered and is closer to average than elite. But he helped.

His last game with the Patriots was his 17th on the team. He had one catch for 7 yards, twisted his knee after a strip sack and his star-crossed Patriots career was over.

Since the Patriots already used one of their two IR returns on N’Keal Harry and the other is going to be used on Isaiah Wynn, Gordon wouldn’t be able to return even if the team changed its mind about releasing him.

Gordon and his camp made it very clear after he was sent to IR that they were just as confused. He was close to being healthy enough to go.

Why not just agree to an injury settlement and release him? It’s probably in the fine print.

Because if they release him now, he can sign anywhere. After next Tuesday’s trade deadline passes, all released players pass through waivers. If Gordon is claimed, the Patriots will get some salary cap relief and the claiming team will get a 2021 compensatory pick if Gordon — who’s a free agent after this season — leaves the claiming team.

But that’s all getting a little deep in the technicalities.

The Gordon move coming on the heels of the shrewd trade for Mohamed Sanu continues a year of ping-ponging personnel on the offensive side of the ball.

Some of it can be traced to injuries. Had the team not lost fullbacks James Develin and Jakob Johnson, they wouldn’t have had Elandon Roberts and James Ferentz clearing the way on goal-line plays against the Jets on Monday.

Also, the Harry injury has thrown a wrench in the wideout plans all year. I still think it’s strange to imagine a rookie wideout in the Patriots system who played one quarter of the first preseason game is a cornerstone piece of the offense, but any port in a storm, I guess.

And it has been a storm when it comes to finding pass-catchers for Tom Brady.

Set aside wideouts for a moment and look at tight end, a position the Patriots always kept populated with competent pass-catchers for the past 10 seasons.

Rob Gronkowski retired (#asexpected). The team fanned on getting Jared Cook. And a parade of tight ends began: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Benjamin Watson, Matt LaCosse, Lance Kendricks, Eric Saubert, Andrew Beck, Stephen Anderson and Eric Tomlinson joining Ryan Izzo, the 2018 seventh-round pick that represents the lone effort the team’s made to find a tight end in the draft in recent years.

Jenkins didn’t make it to June. LaCosse has had moments of usefulness but he’s been unavailable more than available. Kendricks, Saubert, Anderson and Beck didn’t make it to the regular season. Watson got released when he was eligible to return from a four-game PED suspension, got re-signed when injuries forced the Patriots hand and promptly had the most productive game of any tight end this season last Monday against the Jets.

Now wide receiver. The team’s efforts to get slot receivers Cole Beasley or Adam Humphries didn’t pan out. Neither did free agent signings Bruce Ellington, Maurice Harris or Dontrelle Inman.

The league plopped Gordon in their laps near the end of training camp and he was necessary insurance. Jakobi Meyers emerged from nowhere taking the sting out of the Harry injury. They lost Braxton Berrios but kept Gunner Olszewski. And Demaryius Thomas showed up in late August.

Between those guys, Philip Dorsett and Julian Edelman, they could make it work. That seemed the mindset coming out of camp.

Then, when Antonio Brown shot his way out of Oakland, the Patriots fell all over themselves to give him a $15M deal and ship Thomas out of town. Brown lasted eight days, the salary cap ramifications of his release still linger and Thomas is catching passes for the Jets.

AND YET!!!! And yet none of it mattered a bit because — bottom line — the Patriots kept winning thank to a historic defense covering for the trying-to-get-it-right offense.

Just Monday night, the best catch made by a wideout was — quite possibly — the 28-yard back shoulder grab by running back Brandon Bolden.

Despite having no running game to speak of, the scheming of Josh McDaniels and the execution of Brady and the receivers (including James White) has been testament to the team’s “Do Your Job” credo. Yes, it’s been chaotic. No, it doesn’t look like they want it. But nobody cares so execute.

And here they are at 7-0. With an offense that — despite the release of Gordon and the carousel of pass-catchers coming through the huddle — is close to being the best version of itself, at least on paper.

The addition of Mohamed Sanu could be a masterstroke. If he was useful with Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton, imagine what a glue-fingered, big-bodied inside receiver can be for Tom Brady?

And Harry will be eligible to play next week against the Ravens. Even if the Patriots have to stick a GPS on his facemask so he goes where he’s supposed to, he is an athletic upgrade on the outside over Josh Gordon.

This offense could still be potent enough to turn the weekly concerned frown of Tom Brady upside down.

But none of it — from the Gronkowski retirement to the swings-and-misses at tight end to the release and re-signing of Watson to the lusting after and subsequent release of Brown, the trade of Thomas, the unexpected return of Gordon and now his unexpected release — was game-planned.

They’ve been drawing it up in the dirt. It’s worked so far.

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Ben Watson makes surprising revelation about 2019 season with Patriots

Ben Watson makes surprising revelation about 2019 season with Patriots

Ben Watson apparently battled more than Father Time last season.

The New England Patriots tight end claimed in an Instagram story Friday he played through a torn Achilles during the 2019 season and thanked a body coach at Tom Brady's TB12 Sports Therapy Center for helping him play through the injury.

Watson didn't reveal when he suffered the injury, but he played in every Patriots game after making his season debut in Week 7. (He served a four-game suspension after failing a drug test, was released on Oct. 7 and re-signed with the team on Oct. 15.)

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While the 39-year-old tight end didn't contribute much in the passing game -- 17 receptions for 173 yards and zero touchdowns -- it's significant that he was even playing at all, considering he missed the entire 2016 season after tearing his right Achilles tendon in the preseason.

Watson's resilience -- and the fact that he sought treatment at the TB12 facility -- may explain why Brady had such heartfelt praise for the 15-year veteran following New England's Wild Card Round loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Watson strongly hinted at retirement following that game, and given that he apparently has to rehab a torn Achilles, it'd be difficult to fathom him returning for another NFL season.

Patriots 2020 free agency primer: Where does offensive line go from here?

Patriots 2020 free agency primer: Where does offensive line go from here?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

The Patriots' offensive line was thrown into a state of flux before the 2019 season even began. David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Veteran tackle Jared Veldheer retired in June.

By Week 3 of the season, left tackle Isaiah Wynn had been placed on injured reserve, and the team had imported a whopping five different offensive linemen who had spent the offseason with other clubs.

In what was perhaps his most challenging season, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia had to make things work with Marshall Newhouse at left tackle for eight weeks and backup interior lineman Ted Karras as the full-time center.

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In pass-protection, they actually patched things together relatively successfully. Tom Brady recorded a career-high in throwaways -- understanding when to bail on a play that hadn't been blocked up correctly -- but as a group they had an 81.6 pass-block efficiency rating from Pro Football Focus, which was 10th in the NFL.

The running game, however, was a different story. This group struggled with that for most of the season, leading to lackluster production from their backs and a ho-hum play-action passing game. 

What's in store for this group in 2020? Any free-agent fixes available? Let's take a look.

Breaking down the current roster

Isaiah Wynn: Upon his return from IR, he held his own. He placed 18th in PFF's pass-blocking efficiency metric among NFL tackles from Week 12 (his first game back) through the Wild Card Round, allowing 13 total pressures on 263 pass-block snaps. The 2018 first-rounder needs to stay healthy -- he has just eight pro games under his belt in two years -- but figures to be the team's left tackle in 2020 unless the Patriots add a ready-made blindside protector and kick Wynn inside to guard.

Joe Thuney: Why might the Patriots want to kick Wynn inside? Because they could lose one of the game's best left guards via free agency. Thuney was named a Second-Team All-Pro for his work in 2019 and was far and away the team's most consistent blocker. He could end up setting the market for guards in free agency. Thuney enjoyed his time in New England, but keeping him around -- especially with plenty of other positions to improve and not much in the way of cap space -- could prove difficult for Bill Belichick.

David Andrews: Pulmonary embolism ended Andrews' season before it began, and the team missed his athleticism and football IQ on the interior. Speaking at a recent charitable event, he indicated he'd find out more about his condition following check-ups next month. The Patriots have to hope he'll be given the "all clear" to return.

Shaq Mason: It was an up-and-down season for the guard, who since being drafted in 2015 has been among the team's most consistent performers. After grading out as the No. 8 and No. 4 guard in football in 2017 and 2018, per PFF, he checked in at No. 33 this past season. He has four years remaining on a contract extension he signed in 2018.

Marcus Cannon: Another player who dealt with injury -- and for a few weeks an illness that limited him -- Cannon still placed 13th in PFF's pass-block efficiency metric among tackles who played at least 75 percent of their team's snaps. He has two years left on his deal.

Marshall Newhouse: The team's fill-in tackle when Isaiah Wynn went down, he was praised for being able to grasp the offensive system relatively quickly. After a decade in the league, though, his physical limitations were apparent at times. He signed a one-year deal so his time with the Patriots is likely over.

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Ted Karras: The do-it-all interior lineman was forced into a position to be the full-time starting center with Andrews out. He performed admirably in the pass game, allowing just 11 total pressures, which was fifth-best at the position among players with at least 75 percent playing time. He's a free agent this offseason and could be targeted by the Patriots to reprise his three-position backup role as someone who understands the guard and center spots in their offense.

James Ferentz: The 30-year-old veteran backup started two games last season -- the first of his career -- and is respected in the locker room as an intelligent fill-in option. He's a free agent.

Korey Cunningham: The Patriots acquired the young tackle from Arizona for a 2020 sixth-rounder when it was clear their tackle depth was lackluster going into the season. He played just 59 snaps in 2019 and has two years left on his rookie contract. He could compete for a backup tackle spot next season.

Jermaine Eluemunor: Another young offensive lineman acquired right at the start of the regular season, Eluemunor is a player the Patriots had to have liked. They sent Baltimore -- where reportedly he was playing with starters in spring workouts -- a fourth-round pick for Eluemunor and a sixth-rounder. That kind of pick-swap deal is how the Patriots have picked up contributors in the past like Dwayne Allen and Martellus Bennett. Eluemunor is a restricted free agent this offseason and should be back to compete for a role.

Hjalte Froholdt: Injured during preseason play, the 2019 fourth-round pick out of Arkansas who drew Danish reporters to Foxboro missed the entirety of his rookie regular season on IR. He struggled for much of the summer and it's worth wondering how, if at all, he'll factor into any plans to fill in for a potential Joe Thuney departure. 

Yodny Cajuste: Injured when he was selected in the third round out of West Virginia, Cajuste is a good athlete who excelled in pass-protection at the college level. The Patriots could use more tackle depth -- they got caught short there last season despite understanding the importance of the position in 2017 to the point that they had four different players play capably as starters there -- and perhaps Cajuste will help in that regard in Year 2.

Who is potentially on the open market?

Andrus Peat: The Saints overpaid for Peat when they picked up the 2013 No. 7 overall pick's fifth-year option prior to the 2019 season, but this could represent a buy-low opportunity for the Patriots in free-agency if Thuney departs. Peat should not break the bank -- he was the No. 53 guard in 2019, per PFF's grades -- yet he may be viewed as a moldable talent. The Patriots have dabbled in the failed-highly-drafted-guard market before when they traded for Jonathan Cooper in 2016. Peat, drafted as a tackle but most recently a left guard, should be athletic enough to handle Patriots responsibilities and has played in a complex system in New Orleans.

Ereck Flowers: Another failed high-end draft pick, Flowers was taken four spots ahead of Peat in 2015 at No. 9 overall. Flowers is a massive body (6-foot-6, 330 pounds) who made the switch from left tackle to left guard last season. Would the Patriots view him as untapped potential with positional versatility... or as a lost cause?

Greg Robinson: Sensing a trend here? Robinson was the No. 2 overall pick in 2014 and has flamed out at every stop he's made in his short career. Didn't work out with the Rams. Didn't work out with the Lions in 2017. Didn't really work out with the Browns in either of the last two seasons, where he started 22 games at left tackle. But there is size (6-foot-5, 330 pounds) and physical ability there that earned him consideration as one of the college game's most talented prospects not that long ago. Could Dante Scarnecchia whip him into a starter, as he did with Trent Brown two seasons ago, kicking Isaiah Wynn inside if Thuney leaves? Robinson should cost less than the $6.4 million he made on his one-year deal in Cleveland in 2019.

Cam Fleming: Fleming served as a capable backup in New England from when he was drafted in 2014 through the 2017 season. That's what he'd be with the Patriots if he were to return on a relatively inexpensive deal after two years in Dallas. Why not list bigger-name options in this space like Bryan Bulaga from the Packers, Jack Conklin from the Titans, Anthony Costanzo from the Colts or Brandon Scherff from the 'Skins? Those players might take up a third (or more) of the approximately $30 million the Patriots have in cap space at the moment. If they were looking to spend that much, it'd likely go to Thuney. Gambling on talent and going cheaper -- even though the Patriots currently have the sixth-fewest cap dollars committed to offensive linemen for 2020 in the NFL, according to OverTheCap.com -- seems like the more realistic free-agent route.