FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. O-line in flux: Just when you think you’ve seen it all in Bill Belichick’s 22 years as Patriots coach, Sunday brings another first. Never before has the team entered a game with four starting offensive linemen on the 53-man roster but unavailable for action.
So much for “next man up.” This is “next men up” territory.
It’s a huge storyline that potentially threatens the Patriots’ hopes to get back on the winning track — on the road against the Houston Texans (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn and left guard Mike Onwenu stayed behind as they remain on the COVID-19 reserve list, and right guard Shaq Mason (abdomen) and right tackle Trent Brown (calf) were ruled out Friday. Brown was placed on injured reserve Saturday and will miss at least three games.
Belichick often stresses the importance of depth, but this is any coach’s nightmare scenario in terms of having a deep run of absences at one position — especially one charged with protecting rookie quarterback Mac Jones.
Best guess at the starting line from left tackle to right: Justin Herron, practice-squad call-up James Ferentz, David Andrews, Ted Karras, Yasir Durant.
As Karras said during the week, it’s not an ideal situation, but the Patriots have won games with each of the five projected starters playing on the top unit in the past.
If nothing else, they were wise to have four offensive linemen on the practice squad to provide much-needed depth. Elevating three of them for the game — and potentially starting one in Ferentz — shows just how dire the situation is.
2. Gilmore follow-up: I view cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s willingness to play out the final year of his contract with the Carolina Panthers but not the Patriots as having some similarities to how receiver Wes Welker’s time in New England came to an end in 2012. Welker felt he had given a lot to the Patriots, and because of that it was initially harder for him to feel good about their contract offer in free agency, even though it was similar to what he was considering from Denver. For Gilmore, a native of Rock Hill, South Carolina, playing for his hometown team with a fresh slate made it much easier to accept playing out the final year of the contract.
3. Jackson’s future: Gilmore’s departure puts some additional stress on the Patriots when it comes to cornerback J.C. Jackson’s future. Jackson is in the final year of his contract, playing on the second-round restricted free-agent tender of $3.38 million. It would be wise of the Patriots to see whether they can hammer out an extension with agent Neil Schwartz before Jackson heads to free agency, as they don’t project to have the same surplus of cap space in 2022 as they did in 2021, and assigning Jackson a franchise tag of about $16 million would be prohibitive.
4. Hunter’s wristband: Sometimes you can learn a lot about someone by looking at their wrist. For Patriots tight end Hunter Henry, who wears a band that includes the word “tetelestai,” it speaks to the importance of his faith in his life. Henry picked up the band, which he says is a daily reminder to him of how he wants to live his life, in February 2020 when he visited Israel with his family. “One of the most inspirational trips I’ve ever been on,” Henry said. Tetelestai means “it is completed” in Greek and is the last word of Jesus on the cross.
5. Missing Rex: The Patriots had planned to see old friend RB Rex Burkhead in Sunday’s game, along with others with Patriots ties, including right tackle Marcus Cannon (starter), safety Terrence Brooks (special teams) and receivers Brandin Cooks (starter) and Danny Amendola. But Burkhead (hip) and Cannon (back) have already been ruled out with injuries. Burkhead has been part of a running back rotation and has played only 32 offensive snaps in the Texans’ 1-3 start, with one carry for minus-1 yard and two receptions for 11 yards. Given New England running back James White’s season-ending hip injury, Burkhead could be doing a lot more in New England. Maybe planning to face him sparked a thought from Coach Belichick to consider flipping a late-round draft pick to bring him back.
6. Gostkowski the fan: It had to be surreal for longtime Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski to experience last Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay as a fan. I reached out to him about the experience, which he described as “fun from the other side, for sure, until we lost.” Respect for the “we” as Gostkowski still identifies himself as a Patriot — his home from 2006 to 2019 — despite playing for Tennessee in 2020.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) October 4, 2021
7. Mills vs. Mac: If the Patriots didn’t select quarterback Mac Jones in the first round of the 2021 draft, I believe their next target would have been Stanford’s Davis Mills, who went at the top of the third round. Now Jones and Mills oppose each other Sunday in Houston, which is a notable storyline in a game that lacks some sizzle in that regard. “I think Davis is a very talented player,” Belichick said. “Good arm. Pro-style quarterback. I think he’s got a good base.”
8. Meyers’ targets: He flies a bit under the radar because of his understated approach, but Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers is keeping some impressive company. His 42 targets through four games is tied for sixth most in the NFL entering Week 5 games, behind only Cooper Kupp (46), Davante Adams (45), Stefon Diggs (43), Keenan Allen (43) and DJ Moore (43). Meyers has totaled at least eight receptions in each of the past two games, and will look to become the first Patriot with at least eight catches in three straight games since Julian Edelman in 2016. Edelman, of course, is someone Meyers credits for his development.
9. McMillan’s deal: Belichick seemed to have high hopes for Raekwon McMillan in 2021 before the linebacker tore his ACL in training camp, so it made sense that the club signed him to a modest one-year extension for 2022 that could be a good value to the team if he returns to full health and past form. McMillan will earn a base salary of $1.035 million ($100,000 guaranteed) and will receive a $50,000 roster bonus if he’s on the team March 22. He can earn up to $180,000 in per-game roster bonuses and has up to $300,000 in playing-time incentives — $100,000 each for 20%, 30% and 40% of the snaps.
10. Did you know? The Patriots are playing the Texans for the seventh straight season, which is tied for the franchise’s second-longest streak of games against a non-division opponent. The Patriots faced the Colts for 10 straight seasons (2003-12) and the Broncos for seven straight (2011-17). The Patriots-Texans streak will end in 2022 unless the teams finish in the same spot in their division standings this year.