The fifth Sunday of the NFL’s 2021 season has arrived, and there is a lot going on around the New England Patriots and the rest of the league. Let’s use this forum right here to go through some of the stories that have emerged over the last few days: time for our Sunday Patriots Notes.
1. 2021 Patriots a prime example for how quickly depth can deteriorate. Back in training camp, New England appeared to have considerable depth at some of their positions. Their offensive line, running back and cornerback groups were among the deepest and most talented top-to-bottom in the entire NFL. Fast forward to mid-October, however, and all three of them look drastically different compared to how they looked over the summer.
Running back: At running back, the team first traded Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams — not necessarily a surprising move but one that still impacted the group’s overall depth. Then, in Week 3 versus the New Orleans Saints, receiving back James White suffered a hip subluxation; he will miss the remainder of the season because of the injury.
The cornerback position, meanwhile, saw the departure of former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore just earlier this week: Gilmore was sent to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a sixth-round draft selection in 2023 after contract talks broke down. Gilmore opened the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list and has not participated in any games or practices since suffering a quad injury last December, but he still offered quality depth waiting in the wings.
Gilmore is not the only loss the group recently had to suffer. While his departure is of a permanent nature, the Patriots are generally short-handed at the position heading into this week’s meeting with the Houston Texans. Jalen Mills (hamstring) and Shaun Wade (concussion) have both been ruled out, while Jonathan Jones (ankle) and Justin Bethel (hamstring) are questionable to play. Following Myles Bryant’s practice squad elevation, New England has only three fully healthy CBs available at the moment: Bryant, J.C. Jackson and Joejuan Williams.
Furthermore, the offensive line went from “potential top-three unit” to “major question mark” in a matter of weeks. Right tackle Trent Brown has played a grand total of seven snaps so far this year and will spend at least three more weeks on injured reserve; right guard Shaq Mason (abdomen) did not travel to Houston; neither did left-side starters Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu — both are on the NFL’s Coronavirus reserve list.
The Patriots offense led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones will therefore start four backups around center David Andrews this week. Talk about a challenging situation for a QB making the fifth start of his career.
All in all, as mentioned above, the 2021 Patriots are a prime example for how quickly depth can deteriorate in the league. Sure, not all weeks will be as bad as this one, but the team is in for a major challenge not just because of its current 1-3 record.
2. Covid-19 is still impacting life in the NFL. The Patriots are believed to have one of the best Coronavirus vaccination rates in the league, but their roster is not at 100 percent as NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport pointed out earlier this week. Appearing on WEEI’s Gresh & Keefe, he said that one of Wynn and Onwenu was unvaccinated with the other classified as a close contact.
The decision behind getting vaccinated or not is a personal one, yes, but this current case once again shows two things: 1.) Teams are vulnerable if a significant number of players or other personnel is not vaccinated; 2.) The pandemic is still playing a major role in the NFL even with fans back in the stadiums and the league and its clubs seemingly operating close to “normal” again.
3. All eyes are on J.C. Jackson now. With Stephon Gilmore now a Panther, J.C. Jackson will remain a player to watch not just because of his cemented status as New England’s top cornerback. Jackson, after all, is also in the final year of his current contract. He was tendered at the second-round level earlier this offseason, eventually signing the $3.38 million sheet to stay with the club that originally added him as a rookie free agent in 2018.
He is headed for unrestricted free agency, however, and could join a new club next March if not extended or franchise-tagged at that point. The tag could keep him in New England — the Patriots last used it on guard Joe Thuney in 2020 — but the best-case outcome for both sides would likely be a long-term solution.
The question from Jackson’s perspective is this: Would he be willing to sign a long-term deal now, or play out the season before trying his luck on the open market? New England will likely prefer to go down the first route, especially with Gilmore no longer a part of the equation.
4. Patriots reportedly offered Stephon Gilmore a restructured contract. Speaking of Stephon Gilmore, it appears New England was willing to keep him around through 2021 before eventually sending him to Carolina. According to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, the team and its now-former starting cornerback were working on a restructure before talks broke down.
“There were a lot of teams that are tight to the cap, including the Patriots, who, by the way, offered Gilmore a chance to restructure in a way that he could have earned more money than what was on the books,” Garafolo said on the air earlier this week. “He was going to have to be on the field and he was going to have to perform to make it happen, but they were giving him the chance to do that. And they did want to retain him. They just couldn’t come to an agreement.”
5. Cornerback is high on New England’s early 2022 draft priorities list. With Stephon Gilmore gone and J.C. Jackson’s outlook beyond this year uncertain as well it is no secret that cornerback should be high on the Patriots’ priorities list for the draft next spring. A lot can and will change between now and April, but with the position in the spotlight this week now is a perfect time to look at some potential candidates from New England’s perspective.
- Derek Stingley Jr, LSU: The grandson of former Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley is arguably the top cornerback in this year’s class as of right now. He appears headed for top-five status, though, which might make it hard for New England to eventually grab the high-upside defender.
- Andrew Booth Jr, Clemson: An impressive athlete who should succeed in both man and zone schemes, Booth Jr. has the versatility that New England likes from its defensive backs.
- Kaiir Elam, Florida: A big cornerback at 6-foot-2, Elam is playing an aggressive game and actively challenging wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. He would fit New England’s man-based coverage scheme.
- Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati: Another big-bodied press-man cornerback, Gardner is not just a ballhawk but an impressive run defender and contain player well.
- Trent McDuffie, Washington: McDuffie has “first-round CB” written all over him at the moment, but he is more of a zone cornerback right now. If the Patriots believe they can turn him into a successful press-man defender, however, he might be a player worth adding.
Overall, 2022 projects to be a good draft year for the cornerback position. That being said, the Patriots will likely want to have all of their bases covered before possibly making an investment. Having two potential starting spots filled by Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones helps, but the number one spot is the biggest question right now — one that J.C. Jackson would be able to fill.
Even in case that eventually happens, however, the team would be smart to bolster its depth at the position. Joejuan Williams, Shaun Wade and Myles Bryant have not yet shown that they can be consistent starter-caliber players at the next level.
6. The stage is set for all five first-round rookie quarterbacks to start this week. With San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ruled out for his team’s game versus the Arizona Cardinals this week, rookie Trey Lance will make the first start of his NFL career. The third overall selection in this year’s draft will therefore join four other first-round rookie QBs in the starting lineups this week — the first time this has happened all year.
While Lance will start for the 49ers, the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets will again rely on top-two selections Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. The Chicago Bears will start 11th overall pick Justin Fields. And then, of course, are the Patriots led by pick No. 15, Mac Jones.
Speaking of whom...
7. Julian Edelman likes what he sees from Mac Jones. Former Patriots wide receiver and current analyst Julian Edelman spoke highly of the first-round rookie during this week’s episode of Inside the NFL:
“This was a huge confidence-builder for the New England Patriots seeing how Mac Jones played. The lights weren’t too bright for him,” the three-time Super Bowl champion said about the youngster following last week’s game versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While New England lost the game on a last-second field goal miss, Jones had a solid (albeit not spectacular) performance. The rookie finished the game — one that featured Patriots legend Tom Brady on the other sideline — by completing 31 of 40 pass attempts for 275 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception.
8. James Develin will tackle the Boston Marathon. Another former Patriot is also making headlines this week: fullback James Develin, who announced his retirement in 2020, will run the Boston Marathon on Monday to support the Joe Andruzzi Foundation.
“Football really puts you through the wringer a little bit. It teaches you the sacrifices you can make for your body so that you can do what your team needs to do,” Develin told Angelique Fiske of Patriots.com. “Something like running, your team is yourself. I’m running for the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, so I’m running for them too. There’s a sense of, I’m going to go out there and do it. It’s going to be uncomfortable. I know there’s going to be pain, but you have to push yourself to do it and get beyond that.”
Develin played 97 games for the Patriots between 2012 and 2019. He helped the team win three championships and was voted to the organization’s All-Decade Team for the 2010s.
Bonus note: To end on a personal note, it feels good to be back after my paternity leave. Obviously, those last six weeks were quite the experience — one that would not have felt the same way without the support of my colleagues at Pats Pulpit and SB Nation. I cannot thank them enough. I also cannot thank you enough for reading Pats Pulpit and helping make it the best online community Patriots fans can think of. Thank you and: we’re on to the Texans.