The New England Patriots had to wait historically long for their bye week to arrive, but it has finally come. The team now has a chance to step away for a couple of days — players are off from Thursday to Sunday — to get ready for the final four games of the regular season.
The Patriots are tackling those four games in a good position. At 9-4, they are the current top playoff seed in the AFC as well as the frontrunners to retake the division crown from the Buffalo Bills. Obviously, though, the road to the playoffs is still one filled with considerable challenges.
Let’s therefore use the bye to take a look at the players who will try to master them and position the team well down the stretch; from those on the active roster, to those on the practice squad, to those designated or eligible to return off injury-related reserve lists.
It’s a lot, so let’s dive straight in with New England’s starting QB.
Mac Jones: Jones has been impressive so far in his first season in the NFL. After beating out Cam Newton during the summer, the 15th overall selection of this year’s draft has played at a level worthy of Offensive Rookie of the Year recognition: he has started all 13 of New England’s games and has completed 70.3 percent of his pass attempts for 2,869 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Most importantly, though, he has shown steady growth and the ability to operate the notoriously challenging Patriots offense at a high level. It is early, but Jones appears to have “franchise quarterback” written all over him.
Brian Hoyer: While he has seen only spot duty so far this season as the QB2 behind Mac Jones, Hoyer has been an important member of the Patriots’ quarterback room. After all, he is serving as a mentor for the young starter
Jarrett Stidham: Stidham was activated from the physically unable to perform list in early November but has been a game day inactive ever since. The former fourth-round draft pick is currently the third option on the depth chart, and it is unlikely his status changes anytime soon.
Garrett Gilbert (PS): With the Patriots having three quarterbacks on their active roster, Gilbert will likely continue to play the role he held ever since his arrival in early September: he is first and foremost a scout team QB.
Damien Harris: With Sony Michel traded to the Los Angeles Rams, Harris took over as the undisputed top option in the Patriots’ backfield. As such, the 23-year-old is in the middle of a career year: appearing in 12 games he has already carried the football 164 times for 754 yards and 9 touchdowns. Harris also was able to successfully overcome the fumble issues that plagued him earlier during the season. He appears headed in the right direction after his rocky start.
Rhamondre Stevenson: When the Patriots invested a fourth-round selection in Stevenson in this year’s draft, the belief was that he would fill a LeGarrette Blount-like role as an early-down bruiser. However, the rookie has been much more than that: the Robin to Harris’ Batman, Stevenson’s contact balance and physicality as both a runner and receiver have stood out. Appearing in nine games, he has touched the football 112 times for 546 yards as well as three scores.
Brandon Bolden: After opening the season in his usual role as a core special teamer, Bolden was thrust into a bigger job on offense following James White’s season-ending hip injury in late September. Bolden is now the Patriots’ receiving and up-tempo back, and he has performed well in that role. The 31-year-old has gained 472 yards on 62 touches; he also scored a touchdown.
Jakob Johnson: Playing one of the most under-appreciated positions in football, Johnson is in the middle of a very good third NFL season. Serving as a lead blocker in the running game, the former International Pathway Program participant has played a key role in establishing New England’s solid ground game.
J.J. Taylor (Covid-19): Taylor saw action in five games this season before getting placed to the Coronavirus reserve list in late November. The second-year back has registered 23 touches so far, gaining 45 yards and finding the end zone twice. He is New England’s RB4 behind Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Brandon Bolden.
Devine Ozigbo (PS): The Patriots added Ozigbo after J.J. Taylor was sent to the Covid-19 reserve list. Unless Taylor remains out or the hamstring injury suffered by Damien Harris on Monday turns out to be an issue, the expectation is that he will not make the game day roster anytime soon.
Jakobi Meyers: Despite the arrivals of four high-profile free agents, Meyers continues to be New England’s WR1 in terms of opportunities. The third-year man has caught a team-high 59 passes for 620 yards and his first career touchdown so far. The former college quarterback has also completed both of his pass attempts this year.
Kendrick Bourne: One of the Patriots’ most impactful offseason additions, Bourne is the current team leader in receiving yards: he has gained 623 yards on 42 catches, and not just that. Bourne has also scored five scores, carried the ball seven times for 81 yards, and even thrown a touchdown to teammate Nelson Agholor in Week 7. On top of it all, he has quickly established himself as a vocal leader in the wide receiver room.
Nelson Agholor: While Agholor has been a bit quiet compared to fellow free agency additions Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry, his presence alone has been big for the Patriots offense: teams are respecting his deep-field speed, which in turn opens up space for others underneath. He has also seen his fair share of opportunities, and has caught 32 passes for 416 yards and three touchdowns.
N’Keal Harry: The former first-round draft pick continues to disappoint as far as his receiving productivity is concerned: Harry has caught only eight passes for 117 yards so far this season. However, not all is as bad as his stat-line and WR4 status make it seem. After all, he has established himself as one of the best run-blocking wide receivers in the NFL. You don’t invest a Day 1 draft pick for that, but it is certainly better than getting nothing out of him.
Gunner Olszewski: His opportunities on the offensive side of the ball have been limited to 43 total snaps and a 22-yard catch, but Olszewski’s value lies elsewhere: he is the Patriots’ top return man. As such, he has averaged 12.5 yards on 23 punt returns and 25.1 on 13 kickoffs.
Matthew Slater: A wide receiver in name only, Slater continues to be one of the best special teamers in football as well as a leader in the Patriots’ locker room. His value to the organization cannot be overstated, especially with the team grooming its next generation of leaders behind him.
Kristian Wilkerson (PS): Wilkerson did play four offensive snaps in Week 9, but he did not register any statistics and remains on the practice squad. That said, he does have some value as an emergency depth option.
Tre Nixon (PS): The final draft choice of Ernie Adams’ career with the Patriots, Nixon appears to be a developmental option destined for a redshirt campaign. He has yet to be elevated to the game day roster, and it seems unlikely this will change anytime soon.
Hunter Henry: The Patriots signed Henry to a three-year, $37.5 million contract in March snd the early returns have been promising. Developing some good chemistry with Mac Jones, he has caught 35 passes for 394 yards, and is the team’s current leader with seven receiving touchdowns. Henry’s contributions as a blocker also should not go unnoticed.
Jonnu Smith: Joining the Patriots on a four-year, $50 million deal earlier this year, Smith is not yet jumping off the page statistically: he has caught 26 passes so far this year for 271 yards and a touchdown while serving primarily serving as an in-line tight end. That being said, the former Tennessee Titans tight end has had some encouraging games recently and appears to be trending in the right direction.
Devin Asiasi: 2021 has been a challenge for Asiasi so far. Not only did he miss time in training camp due to Covid-19, he also saw the Patriots add the top two tight ends on the free agency market. Now serving as the team’s TE3, he has played just 12 snaps all year.
Matt LaCosse (PS): A starter-level tight end for the Patriots just two years ago, LaCosse is now a practice squad option who has seen action in only one game so far this year. That said, he offers experienced depth behind the top duo at the position.
Isaiah Wynn: Following a rocky start to the season that was followed by a stint on the Coronavirus reserve list, Wynn has played some quality football recently as Mac Jones’ blindside protector. The entire Patriots offense has benefitted from his improved play during its seven-game winning streak.
Trent Brown: Brown suffered a calf injury just seven snaps into the season opener and was forced to miss eight games because of the issue. He has since return to resume his role as New England’s starting right tackle, however, and has played some very good football. In fact, Brown is one of the best players the league has to offer at his position.
Justin Herron: Herron has started a combined four games this season, both at the left and the right tackle position. Since Trent Brown’s return and the O-line finding itself, however, he has only seen marginal playing time. At the moment, he is the fourth option at the position behind Isaiah Wynn, Brown and Michael Onwenu.
Yodny Cajuste: After missing the last two seasons due to injury, the former third-round draft has finally found his way onto the field this season: Cajuste has played in seven games this season, starting two of them at right tackle during Trent Brown’s absence. At the moment, he is New England’s OT5.
Yasir Durant: A trade acquisition from the Kansas City Chiefs, Durant has started one contest at right tackle. However, he has not made the game day roster since Week 6 and appears to be an emergency option only at this point in the season.
Interior offensive line
David Andrews: Now in his seventh season, Andrews continues to be the anchor of New England’s offensive line. Playing with a new quarterback, the 29-year-old has been a reliable presence up front as well as a durable performer: he is the team’s only offensive lineman to start all 13 games so far. A team captain, Andrews is a leader both on and off the field.
Shaq Mason: Even with a revolving door at right tackle earlier during the season, Mason played some good football. Now that Trent Brown is back in the lineup, however, the Patriots’ right guard has elevated his game to another level. He continues to be one of the best right guards in all of football.
Ted Karras: Originally starting the season as the top interior backup offensive lineman, Karras took over a starting role in Week 5. After first playing on the right side in place of an injured Shaq Mason, he moved to the left two weeks later. He has not looked back since, and has been quite solid.
Michael Onwenu: Onwenu’s future is a bright one, but he has been relegated to backup duty after starting games at both left guard and right tackle to open the season. Ted Karras’ emergence and Trent Brown’s return, however, have pushed him out of the top-five. He is therefore a quality depth option at the moment — one capable of starting at both guard spots and at right tackle.
James Ferentz (PS): Ferentz started two games this season at the left guard position earlier this year, but is now a member of the practice squad. He is the team’s fifth option along the interior offensive line, and a valuable player to have even if he is not on the 53-man team right now.
William Sherman (PS): One of the Patriots’ sixth-round draft choices in spring, Sherman has appeared in one game so far in his career. Unless disaster strikes along New England’s offensive line, he remains a developmental prospect at guard and tackle.
Alex Redmond (PS): Redmond has appeared in 32 games over the course of his career, but he is little more than a depth option in New England.
Interior defensive line
Davon Godchaux: The Patriots made considerable investments in their front seven this offseason, and signing Godchaux to a two-year deal was a big part of this. The former Miami Dolphins lineman has played very well this season, helping New England overcome its defensive tackle issues from a year ago.
Lawrence Guy: After re-signing with the Patriots during the offseason, Guy continues to be as steady as they come. A big-bodied player capable of playing multiple techniques up front, the veteran is a prominent member of the defensive tackle rotation.
Deatrich Wise Jr: New England re-signing Wise Jr. to a four-year, $22 million contract this offseason might have come as a surprise, but the 27-year-old is showing why the team invested in him. Wise Jr. has made tremendous strides as a multi-purpose player capable of helping out against the run and the pass. He also is a tone-setter in the locker room.
Christian Barmore: The Patriots trading up in the second round to draft Barmore looks like a genius move 13 weeks into his rookie season. The Alabama product, after all, has been a disruptive force throughout the year and has seen regular action as an interior pass rusher. If his first few games are a sign of things to come, New England might have gotten itself a steal.
Carl Davis: After struggling to stay healthy in 2020, Davis was re-signed on a one-year pact in free agency. After a quality training camp, he carved out a role as a big nose — a position New England failed to properly fill all of last year — and offers solid rotational value.
Daniel Ekuale (PS): Ekuale has had some positive moments this season. Appearing in three games as a practice squad call-up, he registered a pair of sacks. However, the Patriots are no longer able to ad him to their game day roster him via the standard elevation clause.
Bill Murray (PS): Now in his second season out of William & Mary, the former rookie free agent has yet to wait for his NFL debut. At this point in time, however, he appears to be the final layer of depth along he interior D-line.
Matthew Judon: Signing a four-year, $54.5 million free agency contract with the Patriots in March, Judon has been the team’s most disruptive defender all year. Playing at a Pro Bowl level, he is leading the team with 12.5 sacks and a combined 59 quarterback disruptions. While his pass rush prowess and ability to set a stout edge in the running game stand out, they are not the only thing Judon brought to the table: his upbeat persona has also fit in well in the locker room.
Josh Uche (IR): Before an ankle injury forced the Patriots to send him to injured reserve, Uche appeared in nine games as a situational pass rusher. The second-year man, who has three sacks on his résumé so far this season, is already eligible to return to practice and the 53-man roster but remains on IR for the time being.
Chase Winovich: The Patriots’ reigning sack leader is playing a less prominent role this season. As a rotational pass rusher he has yet to register his first sack this year — partially because he has missed time due to a hamstring injury. He has looked solid as a member of New England’s kick coverage units, though.
Ronnie Perkins: Perkins was added in the third round of this year’s draft, but the Oklahoma product has yet to see the field. Injuries played a role in this, but it appears as if the Patriots want to give him a redshirt season.
Dont’a Hightower: After sitting out the 2020 season due to concerns about the Coronavirus, Hightower has returned this season as the leader of the Patriots’ front seven. As such, the team captain has appeared in 12 of 13 games and played some high-quality football regardless of his usage: he is lining up both on and off the line of scrimmage, while serving as a run-stuffer, pass rusher and coverage linebacker. Hightower can do it all at a high level, and New England’s defense is a better one with him back in the lineup.
Kyle Van Noy: Following his one-year stint with the Miami Dolphins, Van Noy returned to New England this offseason. He did have some struggles during his first few games back, but has found his groove again since: seeing an increased number of off-the-ball snaps compared to his 2019 season with the Patriots, Van Noy has developed into a productive and versatile player again. He has registered four sacks, a pick-six, two forced fumbles and one recovery. He always seems to be around the ball.
Ja’Whaun Bentley: There is probably no other player on the Patriots’ roster who has improved as much as Bentley this season. The fourth-year linebacker struggled mightily last season, but he appears much more confident in his abilities this time around. A hard-hitting off-the-ball linebacker capable of reacting well, Bentley is a very good run defender and has also made tremendous strides in coverage.
Jamie Collins Sr: Third time’s the charm for Jamie Collins. The former Patriots second-round draft pick returned following his release from the Detroit Lions, and has looked good in a part-time role. While no longer the do-it-all player he was during his first two stints in New England, Collins is still a capable defender with a nose for the football.
Jahlani Tavai: A former second-round draft pick by the Lions, Tavai started the season on the practice squad before getting promoted to the 53-man roster in October. He is primarily a depth option, but it appears as if the team wants to keep him around as a developmental option in an aging linebacker room.
Brandon King: King missed back-to-back seasons due to injury, but he returned to his year to resume his role as a key member of New England’s kicking game units. The 28-year-old is ranked fourth in special teams snaps and has registered eight tackles. On top of it all, he has also played the first two regular season snaps of his career on defense.
Harvey Langi (IR-R): A core special teamer and depth linebacker, Langi recently returned to practice after being sent to injured reserve due to a sprained MCL. His return to the 53-man roster within the 21-day window is no guarantee, but it seems likely that he will be back before the December 23 deadline if his body responds well.
Calvin Munson: The Patriots brought Munson back into the fold after Harvey Langi was sent to injured reserve. He has filled the special teams role, but one has to wonder about his long-term outlook with Langi now designated to return off injured reserve.
Cameron McGrone (NFI-R): A year after tearing his ACL during his final season at the University of Michigan, McGrone was back on the practice fields again for the first time in late November. He could make the 53-man squad, but seeing the Patriots let the 21-day return deadline come and go would not be too big a surprise either: allowing him to practice at least gives him a first taste of NFL on-field life.
J.C. Jackson: After serving as the Patriots’ number two cornerback alongside Stephon Gilmore for the better part of the previous two seasons, Jackson took the next step in his development in 2021. With Gilmore first on the non-football injury list, and later traded to the Carolina Panthers, Jackson took over as the Patriots’ CB1. He has not looked back since, and has further established himself as one of the best young cornerbacks in football and the NFL’s premier ball-hawk: he has intercepted a team-high seven passes so far.
Jalen Mills: After playing every position in the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary last year, Mills’ role is comparatively conservative during his first season as a Patriot: he is the number two outside cornerback opposite J.C. Jackson. He has had some ups and downs, particularly in the Week 6 game against the Dallas Cowboys, but generally has performed well in his starter-level role.
Myles Bryant: Bryant opened the season on New England’s practice squad, but was promoted to the active roster after starting slot cornerback Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Bryant is not on Jones’ level just yet, but he has been a solid contributor — one who has proven himself capable of playing multiple spots in the secondary.
Joejuan Williams: The Patriots’ former second-round investments continues to have a relatively quiet career. Williams did see some prominent snaps as a perimeter cornerback from time to time, but it is clear he is the fourth option at the position right now.
Justin Bethel: A four-unit special teamer and backup cornerback, Bethel is in the middle of another solid season. The 31-year-old is ranked second on the team behind only Matthew Slater in kicking game snaps, and has registered six tackles and a forced fumble.
Shaun Wade: The rookie trade acquisition via the Baltimore Ravens had to wait until Week 11 to make his NFL debut. However, it is obvious that Wade was brought in for his developmental value rather than his ability to contribute right away. He has played just 11 defensive snaps so far.
D’Angelo Ross (PS): Even with Stephon Gilmore traded and Jonathan Jones on season-ending injured reserve, Ross has yet to wait for his season debut. At this point in time the third-year man therefore appears to be little more than an emergency option.
De’Vante Bausby (PS): Now on his seventh NFL team in as many years, Bausby joined the Patriots’ practice squad in late October. He offers experience and depth, but should not be expected to push for a spot on the active roster unless disaster strikes.
Devin McCourty: With the exception of his Week 5 game in Houston, McCourty is in the middle of another very good season as the leader of New England’s secondary — one that saw the departures of both Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones. The fact that the group is still playing some high-quality football without those two is testament to the leadership provided by the 34-year-old. The Patriots’ defensive signal caller, McCourty is responsible for relaying information and getting his men lined up correctly.
Adrian Phillips: While the knee injury suffered in Week 13 might change the trajectory of his season, Phillips is in the middle of an impressive campaign. The second-year Patriot, who is set to enter unrestricted free agency next offseason, has properly filled the “star” role previously held by franchise legend Patrick Chung. In this role, the safety/linebacker hybrid has intercepted four passes already — including one that was returned for a touchdown.
Kyle Dugger (Covid-19): Dugger was in the middle of a breakout season when he tested positive for Covid-19. Still remaining on the list heading into bye weekend, he already missed one game so far. When available, however, he has proven himself a key member of New England’s secondary: rarely leaving the field and aligning all over the formation, Dugger is the Patriots’ leader in tackles and has also registered three interceptions so far.
Cody Davis: While his value as a safety is non-existent — he has played not a single defensive snap so far — Davis is an important member of the Patriots’ kicking game units. In fact, the veteran is ranked first on the team with a combined 11 special teams tackles.
Sean Davis (PS): With Kyle Dugger on the Covid-19 list, the Patriots decided to elevate Davis to their game day team for last week’s contest against Buffalo. The former second-round draft choice played five snaps before reverting back to the practice squad. He does offer an additional layer of depth behind the top three at the position.
Joshuah Bledsoe (NFI-R): Bledsoe spent training camp and preseason on the non-football injury list after hurting his wrist at the Senior Bowl. He did return to practice alongside Cameron McGrone in November, and appears to be in the same boat as his fellow rookie: it would not be a surprise if the Patriots let the activation deadline pass.
Nick Folk: Folk may have started the season on the practice squad, but there is little doubt about his status as one of the most reliable kickers in football: the 36-year-old has made 33 of 36 field goal attempts and (91.7%) as well as 29 of 33 extra points (87.9%).
Jake Bailey: While two of his punting attempts earlier during the season were blocked, Bailey is a big reason why New England’s special teams units are among the best in the game yet again this season. He is one of the best punters in football, and also capable of placing the ball as a kickoff specialist as well.
Joe Cardona: Have you heard Joe Cardona’s name this season? Probably, but not because of any errant snaps. The Patriots’ long snapper is as steady as they come.
Quinn Nordin (PS): Nordin had a strong training camp, and it is obvious that the Patriots like what he is bringing to the table. He is being groomed to possibly push for the place kicking job next season.
Corliss Waitman (PS): With Jake Bailey dealing with a knee injury in November, the Patriots decided to bring in some help at the punter position. That help came in he form of Waitman, who is in his second year in the NFL. His job is to help limit Bailey’s workload in practice.