In a T-Shirt and Hat game, the Patriots should be in a position to come out with their best foot forward. Instead, they'll be missing their two "most experienced" outside wide receivers in rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins due to injury.
Of course, the Patriots are likely looking towards the future and hope to return a fully healthy Dobson and Thompkins to face the Ravens next week, but the team would never say that. They wouldn't give up any advantage for a divisional win if those two could play- so it means they're just not ready.
Instead, the Patriots will be facing the Dolphins with some hand-me-down players. Let's introduce them:
Danny Amendola: Undrafted free agent signing by the Dallas Cowboys. After a season on their practice squad, he signed to the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad. He was signed off Philly's practice squad by the St. Louis Rams early in the 2009 season, where Amendola was their primary kick returner. The next few seasons, he bounced on-and-off the Rams' injury list before the Patriots paid him big money this off-season.
Julian Edelman: Former 7th round pick and former college quarterback. Edelman played a reserve role for the Patriots, with injuries always preventing him from breaking through. This off-season, only one team brought him in for free agency and the Patriots were able to sign him back for a one year deal, as insurance in case Amendola couldn't stay healthy.
Josh Boyce: 4th round rookie, Boyce couldn't break the starting line-up on a struggling Patriots offense early in the season. He finally made his impact debut because two other rookies were injured and unable to play.
Austin Collie: Former 4th round pick and poster child for NFL head injuries. His two concussions in 2010 ended his season, while another head injury and a torn tendon ended his 2012 season with the Colts. He was picked up by the wide receiver needy 49ers in the off-season, but was cut and ultimately picked up by the Patriots. Who cut him after an injury to his knee. But he was brought back aboard due to dire need at the position.
Matthew Slater: Former 5th round pick by the Patriots. Tremendous special teams player. Absolutely no one wants to see him at wide receiver.
Michael Hoomanawanui: Former 5th round pick by the St. Louis Rams, Hooman was brought by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels when the latter reunited with the Patriots (only after Hooman was cut after two seasons). The Patriots made Hooman take a pay cut in order to stay with the team this season.
Matthew Mulligan: Undrafted veteran. Miami to Tennessee to the Jets to St. Louis to Green Bay and finally to the Patriots. Who yo-yo'd him on the roster for a couple weeks until he stuck due to injuries at the position. Now potentially the Patriots starting tight end.
James Develin: Undrafted out of Brown. Played for the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz (?!), the Florida Tuskers, the Cincinnati Bengals and finally the Patriots. He's a fullback who the Patriots really just wanted to use in short yardage situations, but now he's actually a viable receiving target.
Shane Vereen: Former 2nd round pick by the Patriots. Has been injured more than he's been healthy his entire career. Missed over half the season with a broken wrist.
Stevan Ridley: Former 3rd round pick by the Patriots. Benched due to fumbling. Going to play because there's literally no other option. He's the best pure running back on the team, but the coaches have him on an extremely short leash.
Brandon Bolden: Undrafted sophomore by the Patriots. He's been injured and hasn't been playing.
LeGarrette Blount: Undrafted veteran by the Buccaneers because literally no one else wanted to take him due to his violent history. Traded to the Patriots for a 7th round pick and an Olympic track athlete who wasn't going to play football. So he was basically free.
If you're keeping track, the tally is:
1 2nd round pick (RB)
1 3rd round pick (RB)
2 4th round picks (WRx2)
3 5th round picks (WRx1, TEx2)
1 7th round pick (WR)
5 Undrafted (WR, TE, FB, RBx2)
That's not a whole lot of talent to be lining up as healthy receivers for Tom Brady, especially when considering the top two picks are running backs.
So what can the Patriots do? They could always come out flat and lose a game to a division rival; no one would really blame them for losing with the team in its current state. It's more a matter of how they lost on the field.
The other option is to scheme their way to victory, which I believe is an entirely possible thing to do.
The Running Backs
Vereen, Ridley, and Blount are guaranteed to be active. Blount will be the lead back, with Ridley earning more snaps. Vereen will be the more active player, though, as his receiving skills will be called upon; he'll get over 60% of the snaps.
Vereen needs to stay on the field, while Blount and Ridley are called upon to spell him. The Patriots need to use the short passes to open up the field for the running game who, in turn, will open up the play action game for the big plays. Vereen will get the game started with quick dump off passes before opening up the defense with some runs against lighter packages. Blount and Ridley will enforce that run game.
Develin, the fullback, will need to provide additional blocking or flex out to draw a linebacker in coverage to open up more space underneath for Vereen.
The Tight Ends
Hoomanawanui and Mulligan will be blockers, but the Patriots can't afford to lose the tight end element of their offense. Hooman is returning from an injury, but the Patriots will probably throw him into the fray if he's able to catch. He's not a big seam target, but he's a viable drag route candidate to keep the safeties away from the sidelines.
Mulligan can run the quick out routes and move the chains, but he'll primarily be a blocker for the running game. Williams may not even be active.
This position group is key, though, because the tight end's versatility will allow the Patriots to adjust for the defense. Lighter defensive fronts will get bulled and run over. Heavier will see Hooman "tearing" down the field. If the Patriots forsake their tight ends, the offense will have no open space.
The Wide Receivers
Edelman, Amendola, and Collie are all shockingly similar players. Boyce is more of a deep threat, crossing route guy, but he can play a similar game.
If Vereen is the open target underneath in the middle. If Hooman is the intermediate target in the middle of the field. Then the four aforementioned receivers will have to take advantage of the sidelines. Enter the papercuts.
The Patriots need to stack their receivers on one side, and let Boyce run wild on the other. So Edelman and Amendola can run complementary routes to generate space and open the possibility for the quick pass, while Boyce will try his best to get into the open field.
The value comes in the versatility of the Edelman/Amendola/Collie trio. They can run similar routes out of the same packages in order to fool the defense. One play, Edelman can show a screen while Amendola runs an out route. On another, Edelman can run a go route with Amendola running a crossing pattern. And the two can flip their routes. Or Boyce can line up with Amendola and Edelman can be on the opposite side. Or the Patriots can run trips with E/A/C and they could all rotate their routes on different plays to give the defense confusing looks and maybe just get one of them open.
The Patriots will have to find a way utilize the weapons they have on hand, no matter who they are or where they came from. Bill Belichick is in a far from ideal scenario where he's having to scrape together whatever talent is left in order to provide Brady with a quasi-functional offense. The health will eventually return, hopefully by next week.
Until then, Brady is going to have to take the field with some of the league's hand-me-downs. If you ask me, I think Brady might be able to turn them into a success story.