Lazar’s Patriots Notebook: Cam’s Weapons, Harris Injury Timeline, Practice Squad Thoughts

The Patriots have a potential Achilles heel on offense that is relatable even for the runner-ups of the last two Super Bowls.

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The Patriots have a potential Achilles heel on offense that is relatable even for the runner-ups of the last two Super Bowls, one of which New England themselves won in February of 2019. 

In two close contests, the game came down to which offense could execute a traditional drop-back passing game better than the other, with Brady and Mahomes unsurprisingly coming out on top. 

Even with the scheming of two offensive masterminds that got them there, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, the 49ers and Rams put the game in their quarterbacks’ hands and lost because they couldn’t execute without their coaches’ systems propping up limited quarterbacks.

Cam Newton and his receivers will need to perform at their best when the game is on the line, and it’s not all about scheme and coaching.

We’ve written extensively about how the Patriots offense will benefit from Newton’s mobility. But for those that watched New England’s two-week training camp, concerns about the Pats’ lack of pass-catching firepower, especially when they need to execute a traditional passing offense, are legitimate. Will they have enough?

During camp in a limited scheme environment, Newton completed less than 60 percent of his passes, threw five picks, and took several would-be sacks waiting for someone to get open outside of Julian Edelman. 

Newton is never going to win any 7-on-7 tournaments. His positive plays come from his ability to combine all of his skills (mobility, arm talent, instincts) to ball out on Sundays. And there’s reason to believe that the Pats offense can score points playing to Newton’s strengths. 

However, eventually, the zone reads and RPOs will give way to Newton in the gun with five eligible receivers, and then what? Can he get it done with this supporting cast?

The other angle on the weapon(z) dilemma is that the Patriots, armed with plenty of cap flexibility, could make a move to upgrade Newton’s arsenal. Even that is tricky, though.

There’s a reluctance around the league, and within the wall of Gillette Stadium, to make significant asset-eating moves on players outside the organization due to COVID-19. 

As Belichick noted last week, there’s “less shopping for players” due to the evolving pandemic that constricted future salary cap projections and made it difficult for teams to get newly acquired players up to speed.

Although several lucrative contract extensions were signed this weekend, only 17 players put on waivers during roster cuts were claimed, well below the decade average of 41 post-cutdowns. Due to the lack of preseason games, teams are even more reliant on the faces they know rather than the ones they don’t this season. 

Plus, the biggest trade of what’s usually a busy weekend was the Raiders trading sixth-round pick Lynn Bowden to Miami for a fourth-rounder, not exactly Clowney to the Seahawks as we saw in 2019.

The Patriots can wait for the next DeAndre Hopkins or Stefon Diggs to come available. But those trades aren’t going down right now because it’s too difficult to replace that experience in such a wacky season where everyone is starting behind the eight-ball. 

Instead, New England will most likely need to stay the course with only marginal upgrades at wide receiver or tight end as possibilities, a somewhat scary proposition given the state of those positions groups.

Along with Newton, the onus will fall on the shoulders of first and second-year players such as N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski, Jakobi Meyers, and the rookie tight end duo to make enough plays in crunch time.

The Patriots offense’s success will most likely come down to the development of their young core of pass catchers.

Below are some other quick-hit thoughts on the Patriots roster as we head into the first week of the regular season:

1. Shopping For Linebacker Help

Although finding receiver help is difficult, seeking proven NFL talent to bolster a thin off-ball linebacker group should be a priority. Currently, the Patriots have Ja’Whaun Bentley and rookie Caash Maluia, who was called up from the practice squad on Monday, at inside linebacker. Plus, hybrid defenders in rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings and veteran Brandon Copeland add depth. In theory, the Pats can flood the field with defensive backs and be a shutdown pass defense while maybe conceding yards against the run that won’t hurt their bottom line. Still, outside of Bentley, the Pats sorely lack a physical presence at the second level of their defense, and we saw it exposed at the hands of their own offensive line during camp. Veteran linebacker Todd Davis, who was released by the Broncos over the weekend, is a nice starting point. The Pats need more experience and another thumper, or they’ll be reliant on Bentley, who has never been featured in a full-time role. 

2. Damien Harris & Beau Allen to Injured Reserve, Caash Maluia & J.J. Taylor Promoted 

Patriots second-year running back Damien Harris had a terrific summer, showing off his all-around skill set and explosiveness as a ball carrier. His injury was a letdown for an offense hoping to ride its deep backfield to the end zone. After learning more details about his surgery on a broken pinky finger, we consulted with Doctor Jessica Flynn (@jessdeede) on a realistic timetable for Harris’s return. Due to the nature of the surgery, the expectation is that Harris will miss about a month, meaning he should return shortly after the required three-game stint on IR. This season, an unlimited number of players can return off of injured reserve, and they can return after three games, instead of the usual eight games. The Pats also moved free-agent addition Beau Allen to the IR, opening up a roster spot for Maluia. Undrafted rookie running back J.J. Taylor took Harris’s place on the roster. 

3. Replacing Beau Allen and Damien Harris During IR Stints 

We are more concerned with impact players at the second level of the defense than replacing Allen, as Adam Butler and Byron Cowart should handle early-down responsibilities. With Allen out, the Patriots could go to a 4-3 base front. Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Byron Cowart can rotate inside while Simon, Wise, Winovich, and Rivers play as 4-3 defensive ends. Playing a 4-3 will also mitigate the depth issues at linebacker. The Pats have great depth at running back and can lean on Michel, White, and Burkhead until Harris returns. 

4. Highlights From Patriots’ 16-Man Practice Squad

The Patriots didn’t have any players claimed on waivers after their roster cutdowns, nor did they claim anyone themselves. As a result, the Pats had their pick of the litter when it came to signing players to the practice squad that were with the team in camp, and they have an impressive group of reserves. Here’s a quick scouting report on a few favorites:

Devin Ross – we had Ross making the initial 53-man roster after standing out at training camp. He has some speed, is a smooth technician as a route-runner, and displayed strong hands and a polished football IQ throughout the summer. Odds are he’ll spend most of the season on the practice squad, but if the Olszweki, Meyers, Byrd trio isn’t producing, he should get a look on game day. 

Myles Bryant – although he struggled on the boundary, Bryant has the makings of another potential Chung replacement once he learns how to play to his strengths. The 5-foot-9 Bryant is at a size and long speed disadvantage, but he’s got excellent mirroring technique in man coverage and instincts to play the ball in the air. Bryant finished camp with three interceptions and five pass breakups, adjusting more and more to the speed of the NFL each day.

Rashod Berry – playing at outside linebacker, Berry got better each day during camp. His speed-to-power gave tackles problems, as did his inside counter moves, and he was one of the better rushers in one-on-ones and during team drills. Berry played on both sides of the ball at Ohio State, going from tight end to rush-linebacker, so he’s extremely raw as a pass rusher, making him the perfect developmental player on the practice squad. 

5. Patriots Reportedly Sign UDFA WRs Kristian Wilkerson, Mason Kinsey 

With two open spots on their practice squad, the Pats are reportedly bringing in Titans castoffs Kristian Wilkerson and Mason Kinsey. Tennessee has much better depth at receiver than New England, so it’s not a surprise that they let some talent go. Kinsey is a former DIII All-American that fits the bill of a typical Pats slot receiver. 

As for Wilkerson (above), his skill set is intriguing. The Southeast Missouri State product posted a relative athletic score of 9.72 out of ten at his Pro Day, with a blistering three-cone time of 6.68 seconds. Based on reports from Titans camp, Wilkerson’s three-cone translated to on-field foot speed and route running. There were just too many bodies at that position. Wilkerson is a terrific athlete with great agility and explosiveness. He’s worth taking a look at on the practice squad.

6. Patriots Kicker Situation & the 55-Man Game-Day Roster

There are several roster maneuvers in the new CBA that will come into play this season, and one of those likely relates to the Patriots’ kicker situation. Teams can promote up to two players from the practice squad, make them active for the game, and then send them back down to the practice squad without subjecting them to waivers. In other words, the Patriots can promote either kicker Nick Folk or Justin Rohrwasser up to two times each from the practice squad to have them kick in games. Although it’s not a permanent solution, the new 55-man game-day roster rule is likely why the Pats are stashing their kickers on the practice squad to secure another player on the 53-man roster. Here’s what Belichick told CLNS Media when asked if the 55-man roster rule factored into decisions on cutdown day:

“I think it played a factor. It was a factor for us, and I think it was a factor for most teams in the league. Looks to me like there will be players who play in the game who are on the practice squad who will be elevated.”

7. Patriots Keep Ten OL With Option to Have Eight Active on Game Day

Another rule that will likely come into play for the Patriots is activating an eighth offensive lineman on game day to improve in-game depth. The eighth offensive lineman will count as a 47th player active on game day, rather than taking up a spot on the traditional 46-man game-day roster. The free active body is one reason why the Patriots kept ten offensive linemen on their roster after cutdowns. 

“I think the idea of the eighth offensive lineman is fundamentally a good one. When you have seven players to play five spots, the depth on those five spots is a little bit of an issue. You probably feel pretty good about some of the positions that are backed up, but it’s hard to back up all five spots with two guys or some combination thereof. So, this theoretically would provide you with a backup center, a backup guard, and a backup tackle,” Belichick told me.

8. Early Pats-Dolphins Preview: Stephon Gilmore vs. DeVante Parker 

The Patriots are preparing for their season-opener against the Dolphins as we finally have an opponent to discuss. In a first-look addition of the matchup, the rematch between reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and Dolphins wideout DeVante Parker should be great. Last season, Parker finally got the better of Gilmore in Miami’s win over the Patriots in Week 17, unfortunate timing for Gilmore’s only dud of the season. However, Gilmore usually gets the better of Parker, as the numbers from their career matchups below suggest: