The New England Patriots held their first practice session of the week yesterday and saw the return of a familiar face: Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell was back, which officially makes him the second of the two available players to be designated a returnee off the injured reserve list, which Mitchell was put on in early September.
Let's find out what this designation means for the team.
The Patriots have 21 days to active Mitchell...
The second-year wideout returning to practice opens the window for him to be activated to the Patriots' active roster. New England can pull the plug to activate him at any point – and might as well do so this week – over the next 21 days. Or, to speak in NFL schedule terms: The team could bring Mitchell back until the Wednesday before the AFC title game. If they do not, he will revert back to the injured reserve list and his season is over.
...but need to make room for him on their 53-man roster.
Once the Patriots bring Mitchell back onto their active roster, they will have to make a corresponding transaction. As things stand right now, the most realistic options are either releasing a back-of-the-roster player like Geneo Grissom or Ricky Jean Francois – depending on Alan Branch's injury, of course – or placing a player on injured reserve. Branch or Rex Burkhead might be candidates as could be wide receiver Chris Hogan. Ideally, though, New England goes the first of the two routes.
New England has no more injured reserve returnee spots...
With Mitchell being back at practice and officially getting the returnee designation, the Patriots have now used both of their available return spots. The first designation was slapped onto Shea McClellin, who returned to practice in mid-October but suffered a setback. As a result, the linebacker was not activated to the 53-man roster during the three-week window and will end the season on injured reserve. Hopefully for New England, Mitchell will be able to avoid this fate.
...which means that Mitchell is the last to return this season.
Before placing the return designation on Mitchell, the Patriots had a total of six players eligible to come back off injured reserve. Of course, some were not doing that to begin with – Nate Ebner suffered an ACL tear, Dont'a Hightower was confirmed done for the year by Bill Belichick –, but one name would have been an intriguing option: defensive tackle Vincent Valentine. However, with Mitchell taking the last returnee spot, Valentine will officially not come back this year.
Mitchell adds considerable depth at the wide receiver position.
Other than Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, the Patriots' wide receiver position has not yet produced the desired results. Of course, there are a lot of factors contributing to this – injury, depth at other positions, missing rapport with Tom Brady – but the gist remains: New England needs its wideouts to step up if teams concentrate on stopping Cooks, Amendola and Rob Gronkowski. Maybe Mitchell, who looked promising during his 2016 rookie season, will do just that.