The Patriots held their final practice for Sunday's matchup against the Chargers inside Gillette Stadium on Friday, with the hot-button topic for this game being the starting quarterback.
Although big-picture storylines surround the Patriots, who at a disappointing 2-9 record have more questions than just who will be under center this week, head coach Bill Belichick remained consistent with his responses about the team's starting quarterback for Sunday.
"I'm not going to announce starters. I think we've talked about that plenty of times," Belichick told reporters on Friday morning. "Again, everybody has to be ready to go. So, everybody's gotten opportunities, and everbyody will be ready to go."
Despite the head coach's answers to questions on the topic during his press conferences, all signs still point to second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe starting for the Patriots on Sunday. On Wednesday, Zappe was seen taking most of the reps in the media's brief opportunity to view practice, while reports have trickled out in the last few days saying Zappe will get the nod. Belichick declined to name Zappe his starter for Week 13, but the Pats head coach offered his insight on the 2022 fourth-round pick's practice week, presumably as the Pats starter.
"He's pretty consistent, about what it's been all year. He's pretty even-keeled, not a lot of roller coaster with him," Belichick said. "He played some last year. There were some times where he was competitive, a little more experience this year. We talked about that in training camp. There's growth in players from year one to year two, year two to year three, and sometimes year three to year four. So, we have young quarterbacks, and I'd say they're both on a growth pattern."
With the Patriots essentially out of playoff contention this season, Belichick was also asked about Zappe potentially using this opportunity to audition for a future role on the team. Although he's slated to start now, the Patriots waived Zappe on cutdown day following a rocky training camp and preseason. After clearing waivers, the 24-year-old joined the Patriots practice squad before re-signed on the 53-man roster in September. On Thursday, Zappe told reporters that the up-and-down season has, "been crazy. There have been a lot of talks with [Matthew] Slater and [the coaches]. It's part of the journey."
To that end, Belichick kept it in the here and now, saying, "I really haven't thought about 2024. Just trying to get ready for the Chargers here and get our team ready to go."
As for who the Patriots quarterback will throw to on Sunday, Zappe's supporting cast took a hit on the injury front as rookie wideouts Demario Douglas (concussion) and Kayshon Boutte (shoulder/illness) have been ruled out for Sunday's game vs. the Chargers.
New England is also listing six players as questionable: LB Chris Board (back), OT Trent Brown (ankle/chest), RB Ezekiel Elliott (thigh), OL Riley Reiff (knee), G Sidy Sow (ankle), and DL Deatrich Wise (shoulder). C David Andrews (foot), LB Ja'Whaun Bentley (hamstring), and special teams captain Matthew Slater (ankle) were removed from the injury report – they're good to go.
Unfortunately, the Pats first-year wide receivers won't be able to make the most of an opportunity to show the team what they can do on Sunday. Douglas left last week's loss to the Giants following a nasty hit by Giants linebacker Cam Brown. Brown clotheslined Douglas in the head/neck area on a punt return in the second half, knocking the promising rookie out of the game. Brown wasn't penalized for the play, while the league typically issues fines on Saturdays.
As for Boutte, the sixth-round pick initially practiced in a limited capacity due to a shoulder injury on Wednesday but added an illness to his injury designation over the last two days. After missing the last two practices, Boutte will not play against the Chargers.
Without the two sixth-round rookie receivers, the Patriots will likely lean on veterans DeVante Parker and JuJu Smith-Schuster as Zappe's primary receivers. Second-year wideout Tyquan Thornton is probably next in line to be featured in true three-receiver sets, while the Pats have also used TE Mike Gesicki as essentially a third receiver for weeks now.
The bigger roster decision is between wide receiver Jalen Reagor and QB/WR Malik Cunningham, with the latter on the practice squad. Reagor was inactive last week after playing only one offensive snap against the Colts in Week 10. Cunningham, on the other hand, was working with the quarterbacks this week in practice. It wouldn't be a shock to see Cunningham elevated from the practice squad as Zappe's backup, meaning quarterback Mac Jones could be a healthy inactive. Right now, our money is on Cunningham being elevated and active in the game as the fourth wide receiver/backup QB with a specialized role in the game plan.
For the Chargers, star wide receiver Keenan Allen (quad) returned to practice in a limited capacity on Friday after missing the first two practices this week. Allen, who has 85 more targets than the next Chargers reicever, is officially questionable.
New England has until 4 p.m. ET on Saturday to elevate players such as Cunningham from the practice squad, so we'll continue to monitor their roster moves here on Patriots.com. The Patriots haven't used any of Cunningham's three standard elevations yet this season. In the one game he was active (Week 6 vs. Raiders), Cunningham was signed to the 53-man roster.
The Patriots offense will likely have a new look to it when they take the field at 1 p.m. ET to face the Chargers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.