Patriots

Why it makes sense for the Patriots to let tight end Ben Watson walk

Why it makes sense for the Patriots to let tight end Ben Watson walk

Ben Watson picked a bad week to come back off his suspension. 

Of course he had no choice in the matter. The NFL held him out for four weeks after he was found to have violated the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. That's the standard. 

But there are a few other circumstances at the tight end position in New England that led to the team's decision not to activate the 38-year-old by Monday's 4 p.m. deadline, making him a free agent.

The Patriots tight end was eligible to return to play over the weekend, but he wasn't spotted by reporters at Wednesday's practice, and then he wasn't activated to play against the Redskins. After watching Sunday's game, a 33-7 win, that decision makes more sense. 

First, Matt LaCosse looks healthy. Having suffered an ankle injury during the preseason opener back in August, LaCosse was still recovering into the first month of the regular season. He didn't play in Weeks 1 or 3. He played just 11 snaps against the Bills in Week 4. 

Sunday, though, LaCosse played a whopping 72 of 77 possible snaps and started at tight end. He made one catch for 22 yards and dropped one pass as the Patriots relied more on their two-tight end groupings ("12 personnel") than they had all season. LaCosse also helped free up Josh Gordon on a long catch-and-run on a high-low crosser combination where LaCosse created some traffic for the receiver to shake free from coverage.

LaCosse was one of the first players the Patriots pounced on in free agency back in the spring. Though he wasn't handed a massive contract, Bill Belichick and his staff clearly wanted to work with him and had a plan in place to integrate him into their offense. At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, LaCosse is longer than Watson (6-3, 255), but they might be viewed as similar types of players as "move" (or "F") types at their position. Ryan Izzo, meanwhile, is more of a true in-line "Y" tight end. Izzo played 20 snaps on Sunday and had his best game of the season in a more narrow role, helping to open running lanes for Sony Michel. Izzo also was left totally uncovered for a fourth-quarter touchdown and he made a nice catch along the right sideline for 29 yards. 

With Izzo as the more logical blocking option, and with LaCosse available to play a full workload, the need for Watson might not be as significant as it seemed two or three weeks ago. Expecting him to be a massive upgrade at this point over LaCosse — after Watson had a camp where his hands were inconsistent and he wasn't a noticeably impactful player as a blocker — might be expecting too much. 

Second, there's a financial component. The Patriots will save almost $2 million in cap space by not activating Watson. As a team with about $2 million in space prior to Monday, keeping their roster as-is just about doubles their cap breathing room. 

As a team that is always looking to be active in the trade market, freeing up that kind of space with one easy move — or, more accurately, by standing pat and not activating Watson — has to be somewhat enticing for the Patriots. They'd need about $5 million in space to bring aboard Emmanuel Sanders at the deadline and $6 million in space for A.J. Green, should they be so inclined as to make offers for those players. 

It wasn't all that long ago that Watson seemed like a logical candidate to give the Patriots some experienced depth at a position where they needed it. But the tight end position had its best game as a group on Sunday, and the Patriots are a team that could use some salary-cap space. Considering those factors, letting Watson walk was the way to go.

Potential cost of acquiring Green or Sanders>>>>>

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Five bold predictions for Patriots' 2020 training camp: Breakout at TE?

Five bold predictions for Patriots' 2020 training camp: Breakout at TE?

With the New England Patriots finally hitting the practice field this week, Phil Perry shares his bold predictions for Pats training camp as well as the top storylines that will be monitored over the next few weeks.

The upcoming season may be the most challenging in NFL history for rookies to contribute. And yet here we are, predicting that a rookie tight end will end up as the star of Patriots training camp. That's gnawing-on-coffee-grinds bold, no?

OK. Maybe not. Depends on just how off-the-wall you like your predictions, I guess. But bold is what we're going for here as we try to foresee what we'll witness on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium over the next month. Hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times, please. Let's go.

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1. DEVIN ASIASI WILL BE THE STAR OF CAMP

I know what you're thinking. "The star? Like, as in the best of the bunch?" Well, no. Probably not. But he will be among the top performers, in my opinion. And because it's training camp -- because we're itching for a look at the new names -- that'll make Asiasi "the star."

Part of the reason I can envision him having success is that he'll have opportunity. There's no veteran ahead of him demanding every rep with Cam Newton.

He's also in possession of a tremendous physical skill set. He has excellent body control for someone weighing 260 pounds. He's capable of sudden cuts in and out of breaks. He'll be working against a young linebacking corps in coverage at times and with a quarterback who has loved throwing to tight ends over the years.

Put it all together, and I think he'll be a legitimate standout among other big names whose success this time of year will be a little more expected. 

2. SUDFELD MEMORIAL HYPE-TRAIN-LEAVING-THE-STATION AWARD: J.J. TAYLOR

Every August our collective conscience as football followers in this region wanders back to a tall, long-haired tight end making play after play in training camp.

Zach Sudfeld was hope personified, the premier example of a player who emerged from nowhere, seemingly, to look like a game-changer in the summertime.

This year? That player will be J.J. Taylor.

An undersized human joystick type, he was undrafted out of the University of Arizona. He'll work in as a punt and kick returner, I believe, and has the ability to both run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield.

Will he be more Dion Lewis or Jeff Demps? Hard to know before laying eyes on him in a Patriots uniform, but I'm leaning toward the former right now. And tales of his ankle-breaking ability relayed from reporters to fans will have folks clamoring to see him on the 53-man roster Week 1.

3. TWO ROOKIE DEFENDERS NOT NAMED KYLE DUGGER WILL START

Part of this will be by necessity, of course. There's no way around it: Lose four veteran linebackers in one offseason, and odds are you're going to be relying on a few young fill-ins.

Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche feel like the most likely candidates to help make up for the departures of Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts. There is no one-for-one replacement for Hightower, but it looks like Ja'Whaun Bentley will be the closest thing the Patriots defense has for that role.

For Collins? I like Uche as a reasonable facsimile. He was a prolific second-level blitzer at Michigan. He's a twitchy athlete who can cover. He's not as long as Collins, but he's a dynamic athlete.

Jennings may have the toughest gig of the bunch if he's the first- and second-down replacement for Van Noy. Chase Winovich (listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds) excelled in a third-down sub-rusher role for the Patriots as a rookie, and he'll challenge for a more regular spot. But Jennings looks like he has the frame to set the edge (6-foot-3, 259 pounds) on early downs.

Kyle Dugger is a next-level athlete who could end up as Belichick's punt-returner in Year 1. But with Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips looking like the top two options at safety at the moment, he may have to wait to start.

Here's how Belichick assessed his rookie class on Friday: "I think they’re just trying to keep their head above water and try to swim or paddle in the right direction knowing that they’re not really able to keep up, but they’re doing the best they can and they’re way, way ahead of where they were a week ago, two weeks ago, a month ago, two months ago. So, a lot of progress there, but a long, long way to go."

4. DAMIERE BYRD WILL WIN THE NO. 3 RECEIVER JOB

Here's what we think we know about the Patriots receiver group when healthy: Julian Edelman and N'Keal Harry will be out there regularly. Other than that? Eh...

Mohamed Sanu clearly has an advantage over other younger receivers in this shortened offseason. He has an advantage over veteran newcomer Damiere Byrd in that he's been in the system since the middle of last season.

But I could envision a scenario in which Byrd -- whose top-off-the-defense speed makes him a different type of player than Sanu or Jakobi Meyers -- is the No. 3 wideout in 11 personnel packages for Josh McDaniels.

Patriots Talk Podcast - Training Camp Preview: Burning Questions and Bold Predictions | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Particularly if the team wants to work in more Shanahan-style concepts -- with a flat option, an intermediate option and a deep-threat option all on the field simultaneously -- Byrd could end up playing starter snaps.

Where does that leave Sanu? He'll provide valuable depth as someone who can play in the slot and on the outside, but I'd anticipate the Patriots wanting to give Harry every opportunity to be a legitimate starting "X" receiver, and we know Edelman is still their most dependable option on key downs.

Value in roster-building then comes into play. If Sanu isn't a top-three wideout, and if he's not a big-time special-teams contributor, and if he's making $6.5 million, is he long for the roster? 

5. COACH WE'LL BE DISCUSSING THE MOST: JEDD FISCH

Fisch was named quarterbacks coach this offseason, a title that McDaniels typically holds in addition to his offensive coordinator role.

Having bounced around the country working high-profile jobs both in the NFL (Vikings and Jaguars offensive coordinator) and in college (Miami and UCLA offensive coordinator), Fisch has worked alongside a number of brilliant offensive coaches.

Early in his career, though, he took a position coaching Mike Shanahan's receivers in Denver and appears to have been significantly impacted by a Shanahan system that features heavier personnel packages, wide-zone runs and play-action passes.

In Jacksonville, he emphasized some of the same concepts. Working in Los Angeles under Sean McVay (another Shanahan acolyte) Fisch was swimming in another system heavily influenced by Shanahan.

The reason we'll be discussing Fisch and his early impact on the offense, I think, is because we'll see some of those Shanahan elements in the Patriots offense as it redefines itself following Tom Brady's departure: Fullbacks leading the way for wide-zone runs, two tight end packages and play-action bootleg roll-outs.

That last element -- helped by quarterbacks who have no issue with a "moving pocket" -- wasn't something that was featured prominently with Brady behind center. But with Newton and Jarrett Stidham, McDaniels will have no problem calling for those kinds of looks in 2020. And Fisch will be instrumental in helping them master that portion of the Patriots playbook.

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Why Jason, Devin McCourty decided not to opt out of Patriots' 2020 season

Why Jason, Devin McCourty decided not to opt out of Patriots' 2020 season

The New England Patriots have a league-high eight players opting out of the 2020 NFL season due to concerns about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pats defense was impacted most with safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Dont'a Hightower deciding the risk of playing this year outweighed the reward. There was some speculation Devin and/or Jason McCourty could follow suit after Devin criticized the NFL for moving up the opt-out deadline, but both are set to play this season.

On Friday, Jason McCourty explained why he and his twin brother never seriously considered opting out.

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“Me and Dev have both spoken a lot about our stance on everything that goes on — I don’t think either one of us ever thought about actually opting out," McCourty said on a video call with reporters. "The opt-out itself just wasn’t worth it. I think for us, the love of the game and the ability to go out there — we didn’t really have a lot of issues that other people have, whether it was newborn kids, whether it was things that put them in high risk or close family members that put them in high risk.

“So for us, it was strictly from a family standpoint, we felt like it was worth it to give it a try and see what we were up against. And being able come into the building, seeing the things that would be done (to protect players), I think we thought it was necessary to go through that process.

"And I think us, like anybody in our society right now, if it was something that was at an extremely high risk to you or your family, of course you wouldn’t continue to do it if you could stop it. But I think for all of us right now playing that are in our building — I can’t speak for everybody, but I think we’re comfortable with the protocols and the measures that have been taken. I think all of us are in this thing together."

While they're a bit shorthanded for 2020, the Patriots defense still is positioned to be one of the best in the NFL. That especially applies to the secondary, where the McCourty twins will aim to help maintain the unit's reputation as one of the best positional groups in the league.

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