FOXBORO -- Stephen Gostkowski's injury very nearly made an already difficult decision for the Patriots even more difficult.
Per NFL rules, each of the league's 32 clubs is able to return two players off of injured reserve and onto their active roster. (Last year, in New England, the two who returned off of IR were running back Rex Burkhead and Duke Dawson.)
The Patriots had three players on injured reserve who could potentially return: N'Keal Harry, Isaiah Wynn and James Develin before news of Stephen Gostkowski's injury.
It was reported by the Boston Globe on Wednesday afternoon that Gostkowski was headed to IR. The Patriots worked out kickers inside Gillette Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.
All four of those players on New England's IR -- not including those placed on IR before the roster cut-down to 53 players, like David Andrews, who aren't eligible to return -- could conceivably make a big impact if they are brought back. All will not be able to practice until they've been out for six weeks. They will be able to play after being out for eight weeks.
Choosing two would have been difficult if Gostkowski made the number four. Would he be more valuable as a returnee than a big-bodied receiver? Or a fullback? Or a left tackle? It all would've depended on his replacement fares.
But according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Gostkowski will have hip surgery and will miss the entire season. He won't be healthy enough to return, so that will make the Patriots' decision easier (although they'd probably like to have Gostkowski's services this year).
Still, the Patriots choice could be difficult even without Gostkowski. Here are the pros and cons of each one of their three choices.
WR N'Keal Harry: The rookie wideout was banged-up for much of training camp and couldn't get healthy after suffering a couple of different injuries in Detroit. He'll have plenty of time to get healthy and he should provide the Patriots with an outside-the-numbers, contested-catch presence upon return. Even if he runs a limited route tree, even if he will have missed a month's worth of practices, and even if Brady is reluctant to use young receivers, he should give a thin position group a boost. He can return in Week 9.
LT Isaiah Wynn: Wynn didn't get very far into his second season as a pro before suffering another long-term injury. He missed all of his rookie season with a torn Achilles and then suffered a foot injury in Miami that sent him to IR. In the short time that Wynn was healthy and no longer recuperating from his Achilles injury, he looked light on his feet and powerful enough to hold up against bull-rushing pass-rushers. If he can get back to that form, bringing him back off of IR would seem to be a no-doubter. Left tackle is one of the most valuable positions on any roster, and while Marshall Newhouse has given the Patriots a good effort there in Wynn's absence, Wynn's return would qualify as an upgrade.
FB James Develin: Develin's presence on the field made a world of difference to the Patriots in 2018. Their 21-personnel (two backs, one tight end) groupings were the team's most efficient both when they elected to run and when they elected to pass during the postseason run that resulted in a sixth Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots weren't as effective with a fullback on the field in the two weeks Develin was healthy enough to play this year, but he was still a major component to the team's running game and special teams units. Dealing with a neck injury, there's no certainty that Develin will be able to return. But even with the running game looking for all the help it can get this season, having the fullback back doesn't at this point seem like it would rise to the top of the list of IR-return options.
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