The New England Patriots had an active Thursday. Not only did they hold their second practice of the week and sign two defensive backs to their practice squad, they also reportedly made a change to their 53-man roster.
Cornerback Marcus Jones, who left the Week 2 game against Miami with a shoulder injury, was sent to injured reserve. Taking his place on the team is quarterback Will Grier, who was signed off the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad.
Let’s assess what those two moves mean from a big-picture perspective.
QB Will Grier: Signed to 53-man roster
New England is still looking for improved quarterback depth: While Mac Jones is unquestioned as the Patriots’ starting QB, the backup spots behind him are still not settled. Signing Grier, after all, is just the latest move made to address the room.
The team headed into cutdown day with Bailey Zappe, Trace McSorley and rookie QB/WR hybrid Malik Cunningham under contract. All three were released, with Zappe and Cunningham re-joining the practice squad. The team later also claimed Matt Corral off waivers, but after three practices sent him to the exempt/left squad list — he was later released, and plans to re-sign him to the practice squad fell apart.
The Patriots also brought in Ian Book via its developmental roster, but he too was let go after a short stint. Now, Grier is the latest addition to bolster the depth at the most important position in the game — and to possibly challenge Zappe’s standing as QB2.
The Patriots get a player already identified as a fit in the pre-draft process: Coming out of West Virginia in 2019, Grier was one of the top quarterback prospects in the draft class — so much so that he ended up as the fifth passer off the board when the Carolina Panthers selected him 100th overall in the third round. The Patriots, who ended up drafting Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham in the fourth, reportedly also showed pre-draft interest in Grier.
And looking back at his scouting profile, it is not hard to see why:
With his blend of moxie, experience and decision making Grier projects best to a system that incorporates spread concepts into a balanced offensive approach. Imagine for a moment the current New England system with a spread element component, that relies on quick game concepts as well as schemed deep shots. Such a system might be the ideal environment for him. That might be a huge reason for the Patriots’ reported interest in Grier.
Grier has not lived up to his potential as a possible early starter in the league, but his college background is an intriguing one. It will be interesting to see whether that translates to success in New England.
Grier Will remain on the 53-man squad for at least three weeks: Per NFL rules, a player signed off another team’s practice squad is guaranteed roster projection for three weeks. This means that, while a team could theoretically release him shortly after adding him his spot on the 53-man team and the pay roll will remain intact after that period is over.
Since Will Grier joined the Patriots’ active roster directly from the Bengals’ practice squad, this is relevant for him.
The Patriots lose some cap space: New England’s transactions on Monday leave a dent in the team’s salary cap. Signing Grier to the active roster, and adding cornerbacks Breon Borders and Azizi Hearn to the practice squad decreased New England’s cap space by roughly $1.36 million.
According to Miguel Benzan, the Patriots now are $4.2 million under the cap.
The emergency QB rule now becomes relevant for the Patriots: The Patriots now have three quarterbacks on their active roster, which means that the recently-introduced emergency quarterback rule is now of relevance to them. Starting this year, after all, teams can use a third inactive QB and insert him into the game if the two ahead of him on the depth chart become unavailable either because of injury and/or disqualification.
The catch was that all three quarterbacks had to be on the 53-man roster to begin with — something that was not the case in New England earlier this year. With Grier now joining Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe on the active list, however, he can be designated as the emergency option even if not on the active 47/48-player game day roster.
CB Marcus Jones: Placed on injured reserve
Jones will miss a minimum of four games: Even though he is eligible to come off of injured reserve later in the season, the Patriots will be without Marcus Jones for at least the next four games — and maybe more. Dealing with a reported torn labrum, after all, only time will tell how his body responds and whether he will be able to play through the issue.
The cornerback depth gets tested even more: With Jones on IR, three of the Patriots’ top five cornerbacks will have missed time with injury already this season. Jonathan Jones was out in Week 2 because of an ankle issue; Jack Jones has been on injured reserve due to a hamstring injury since before the season opener and might miss more than just four games; Marcus Jones is now out until at least Week 7 as well.
While first-round rookie Christian Gonzalez has impressed early on, and Jonathan Jones is back at practice, the injuries have been tough on the Patriots’ CB depth. As things stand right now, Gonzalez, Myles Bryant, Shaun Wade and rookie Ameer Speed are the only fully healthy players at the position outside practice squad options William Hooper, Breon Borders and Azizi Hearn.
Luckily for New England, the secondary as a whole is a versatile one. Safety Jalen Mills has extensive experience at cornerback, for example, with practice squadder Joshuah Bledsoe also a candidate to move there.
All in all, however, the situation is far from ideal. Losing two of your top five CBs for an extended period of time is difficult on any defense, even one as versatile and deep as the Patriots’
Demario Douglas is the frontrunner to take over as punt returner: Jones did not just enter the season as a fourth/fifth cornerback, but also one of the best punt returners in the NFL. The reigning All-Pro led the league with 12.5 yards per runback last season and averaged a still very solid 7.0 on three returns so far this year.
With Jones now out, the Patriots will likely hand the keys to wide receiver Demario Douglas. The sixth-round rookie filled in for Jones against Miami on Sunday, and averaged 6.0 yards on two returns.
New England now has four players on its IR-return list: With Jones off to IR, the Patriots now have four players on the list who are eligible to return:
- CB Jack Jones: eligible to return Week 5
- WR Tyquan Thornton: eligible to return Week 5
- OT Riley Reiff: eligible to return Week 5
- CB Marcus Jones: eligible to return Week 7
All four of these players might be given prominent roles upon their return. Jack Jones is a top-three cornerback and potential starter opposite Christian Gonzalez; Tyquan Thornton is a speedy wideout who might become a deep threat for an offense in need of one; Riley Reiff is a candidate to start at right tackle; Marcus Jones is a valuable rotational corner plus an electrifying punt returner.
One other note on the IR-return players. As observed by Pats Pulpit alumnus Keagan Stiefel, the team had four players of 181 pounds or lighter on its roster this year. All but one of them — Tyquan Thornton (181 lbs), Marcus Jones (174 lbs) and Jack Jones (171 lbs) — are now on IR, with Demario Douglas (179 lbs) the only exception.