The New England Patriots expected linebacker Shea McClellin to return from the injured reserve and to replace defensive captain Dont’a Hightower in the lineup, but a setback forced McClellin out and ultimately ended his season.
The league updated a rule in March to allow teams to bring back 2 players that are placed on the injured reserve after making the initial roster. These players can practice after spending six weeks on the injured reserve and must be activated within 21 days of their first practice. If that player is not activated within those 21 days, they are placed on the season-ending injured reserve.
The Patriots used one of their 2 return designations on McClellin and because he had practiced prior to his setback, New England is down to 1 return designation. The designation is used regardless of whether the player is ever activated because the team effectively gets an extra player at practice for those 21 days and the league doesn’t want teams manipulating the injured reserves for extra practice players.
So now New England has the ability to return just one player from the injured reserve. For the Patriots, there are only three players that could return under the designation rules and since one of them is Hightower- who needs a length recovery period- there are only two players that could use the final return.
And while technically players could still be placed on the injured reserve and eventually brought back, there’s really only a couple more days available for a player to still have the mandatory six week window on the reserve. Any player that suffers an injury and has a chance of returning is likely to be kept on the active roster as a gameday inactive instead of placed on the injured reserve.
Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell were selected 16 picks apart in the 2016 NFL Draft and they are both on the Patriots injured reserve for knee injuries. They will be fighting over the final designation.
With Alan Branch playing better in recent weeks, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy entrenched as the starters, and the recently-signed Ricky Jean-Francois now in the building, it seems unlikely that Valentine will be the player to come back to the active roster, barring another injury.
Mitchell is the more likely option to return, especially as Chris Hogan deals with a shoulder injury, leaving Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Phillip Dorsett as the depth at the position. Amendola’s health is never a given, while Dorsett is still learning the Patriots offense.
The Patriots could use Mitchell on the outside and in the red zone, where he was an active part of the offense in 2016. From week 10 onward through the postseason, Mitchell led the Patriots with 13 red zone targets and 9 red zone receptions- and Mitchell missed two games during that time. His 3 touchdown receptions inside the 10-yard line also led the team during that period.
So the Patriots have struggling to finish drives and Mitchell was a large part of the offense’s success in that area during 2016. He’s recently started to run again, according to a report by ESPN’s Mike Reiss, and could be a welcome addition down the final stretch of the year.