While the entire pro football world was getting ready for the first round of the NFL’s virtual draft last month, the New England Patriots were busy trying to bolster their wide receiver depth chart: just a few hours before the event was kicked off, the team agreed to a one-year contract with free agent wide receiver Marqise Lee. The 28-year-old had become available following his release by the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier that same week.
Lee had spent his entire career in Jacksonville up to that point after originally getting drafted with the 39th overall selection back in 2014. While never a true number one wide receiver, he did have regular production as a perimeter receiver for the Jaguars and went on to appear in 62 games for the club. However, Lee struggled with injuries over the last two seasons and had to end both his 2018 and 2019 campaigns on injured reserve.
“It’s been quite difficult with the knee injury and coming back with the shoulder injury,” Lee told reporters during his introductory video conference call with the New England media earlier this week. “It’s been difficult, but it’s been a task which I have quite enjoyed as far as knowing myself. After these certain injuries, you’ve got some people who get down on themselves and tend to want to shut it down. For me, it’s kind of like a motivating factor.”
While Lee appeared in 53 regular season games and three playoff contests over his first four years in the NFL, he has been limited to only six in-game appearances since.
During the 2018 preseason, and just five months removed from signing a four-year, $38 million contract extension with the Jaguars, he tore the ACL, MCL and PCL in his left knee and had to spend the remainder of the year rehabbing. While he eventually returned to the field the following season, and appeared in six of his team’s first eight games, a shoulder injury forced Jacksonville to shut him down for the second season in a row.
While Lee joins the Patriots with an impressive career résumé of 181 combined regular season and playoff catches for 2,253 yards and eight touchdowns, only three of those receptions and 18 of the receiving yards have therefore come over the last two years. Needless to say that the veteran receiver is longing for a fresh start in a new environment, and he feels as if New England offers him the best opportunity to achieve those goals.
“I just knew the last couple years I didn’t really have the opportunity to go out there and do the things I felt like I needed to do as a player,” he said. “I felt like me choosing New England, just to go there as far as this season was in the sense of just trying to get back to myself. Which place is the perfect place to get back and try to get back to yourself rather than New England? Very strict, basically just all about football and handling your business.”
“I feel like I was a little bit off on that point with these last two injuries I had, so I just wanted to get back right on track, get everything back on point. I felt like New England is the right place for me,” the former second-round draft pick continued. “I just want to see where I’m at at this point. It will be good to get out there and play football, which I feel like I haven’t played in the last couple years. I’m just ready to get at it.”
While Lee is guaranteed $300,000 as part of the one-year contract he signed with the Patriots last month — one that qualifies for the minimum-salary benefit, meaning that his cap hit ($887,500) is actually lower than his salary ($910,000) — he is far from a lock to make the team’s 53-man roster this year. While only two players are essentially guaranteed to make the team in Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry, New England does have plenty of bodies competing for the remaining spots alongside them.
Lee will therefore enter a battle for practice reps and preseason playing time that also includes veteran Mohamed Sanu, fellow free agency acquisition Damiere Byrd, second-year players Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, as well as former practice squad members Quincy Adeboyejo and Devin Ross. With the exception of Meyers, who saw more snaps in the slot that split out wide, all of those players bring considerable perimeter experience to the table and are therefore direct competition for Lee.
For the time being, however, Lee’s focus is on taking one step at a time: finally getting back onto the field, and letting things sort themselves out from there.
“It’s a difficult thing to come back from as far as the injuries and things like that, but we knew what we signed up for when we decided to play the game,” he said. “You can try to do as much as you can to prevent injuries. There’s a lot out there that you can do. But in all honesty, it’s football. Injuries come all type of ways — non-contact and contact. So, you’ve just got to be prepared to bounce back from it, in all honesty.”
“As far as my situation goes, it is what it is,” the ex-Jaguar added. “From some of our backgrounds and where some of us came from, this is not the hard part. Me having to battle and try to get a spot is not a hard position for me. This is something I’ve been doing all my life, so it’s just part of something I’ve been doing. As far as the goals, just go out there and make sure I stay healthy and just try to compete.”