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.
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