The Patriots made a series of roster moves ahead of Sunday's regular-season finale vs. the Jets.
New England signed TE La'Michael Pettway to the 53-man roster from the practice squad and placed TE Hunter Henry on injured reserve. In addition, the Patriots have elevated TE Matt Sokol and OL Andrew Stueber to the active roster from the practice squad. Sokol has been elevated in the last three games with Henry sidelined since Week 15. This is Stueber's second consecutive standard elevation due to Trent Brown's absence and three offensive tackles on season-ending injured reserve (Calvin Anderson, Conor McDermott, and Riley Reiff).
Pettway, a standout in the USFL, where he won a championship with the Birmingham Stallions during the 2023 season, has been on the Patriots practice squad since late December. Pettway is a more compact tight end listed at 6-1, 230 pounds. He has some receiving skills as a collegiate wide receiver. Pettway has rarely operated as an in-line tight end. If he gets an opportunity on Sunday, seeing his exact role in the Patriots offense will be interesting.
Without Henry for the third-straight game at tight end, the Patriots have leaned heavily on pass-catcher Mike Gesicki and traditional tight end Pharaoh Brown. Gesicki has played 66.7% of the offensive snaps sans Henry, with most coming detached from the formation (61 of 74 snaps, 82.4%). Brown has been on the field for 57.3% of the snaps to handle the in-line duties. The duo has combined for nine catches, 80 yards, and a touchdown without Henry in the lineup. Sokol has played 11 offensive snaps in two games, 10 as a run blocker.
Although the roles for the active tight ends are evident in Week 18, the more interesting question is what the Patriots will do at tight end following the season. Three tight ends currently on the 53-man roster will be free agents in the 2024 offseason: Brown, Gesicki, and Henry.
Henry, who had an injury history before arriving in Foxborough, appeared in 49 consecutive games for the Patriots after signing with the team as a free agent in 2021. The veteran has been a very productive red-zone target (six touchdowns rank second among tight ends in 2023) and a reliable security blanket. As he enters his age 30 season, Henry's projected value in free agency via Over the Cap is roughly $7 million, an affordable number that the Patriots should entertain.
As for the other two Pats free-agent tight ends, Brown has been a nice find as a solid run blocker and a surprisingly explosive pass-catcher. Brown has caught all 12 of his targets, with half his receptions producing 15-plus yard plays. The 29-year-old has proven to be a nice depth piece as a sneaky big-play receiver. While the production hasn't been off the charts (28 catches), Gesicki brings a unique blend of fluidity and receiving skills in a tight end's frame but has a very specific role.
New England should be looking in the draft for a developmental tight end to add to the pipeline. Frankly, it was surprising the Pats didn't tap into a very deep tight end class in 2023, which has produced relatively solid contributors in Sam LaPorta (Lions), Dalton Kincaid (Bills), Packers draft picks Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft, and Michael Mayer (Raiders).
There are always exceptions to these types of trends. But, on the whole, it's often difficult for tight ends to produce as rookies. Assuming the price point makes sense, bringing back Brown and Henry to serve as bridges to younger tight ends would be a good approach. Gesicki may be the odd man out in this scenario to create a roster spot for a rookie.
Along the offensive line, Stueber did not appear in last week's loss to the Bills despite getting the nod from the practice squad. Instead, the Pats rolled with Vederian Lowe at left tackle, who has been more serviceable on the left side. Lowe has yet to allow a sack with three total QB pressures in two starts at left tackle. Earlier this season, he allowed four sacks and 27 QB pressures in five starts at right tackle. With the Jets ranking fifth in pressure rate this season, it'll be a good test for Lowe, who might be earning an opportunity as a top swing tackle next year.
With Lowe and Mike Onwenu projected to start at the two tackle spots on Sunday, the Patriots might give more opportunities to fourth-round pick Jake Andrews on the interior. Although rookie right guard Sidy Sow has shown promise, fifth-round pick Atonio Mafi has struggled at left guard. Mafi has allowed nine quarterback pressures over the last two games, both essentially playing as a starter, after New England lost 2022 first-round pick Cole Strange to injury in a Week 15 loss to the Chiefs.
Granted, it was a small sample size of 13 snaps. Still, rookie Jake Andrews passed the eye test in limited work last week. Andrews was drafted in the fourth round as a potential heir to future Patriot Hall of Famer David Andrews at center. After looking the part in his regular-season debut in Buffalo, it would be good to get an extended look at the younger Andrews. The elder Andrews hasn't made any retirement decisions, and he had a very good ninth season in the NFL, but Jake Andrews should earn some more playing time based on last week's film.
Sunday's regular-season finale is about future player evaluation and potentially head coach Bill Belichick's final game as Patriots head coach. However, the result does have major draft implications for New England. With a win, the Pats could drop to seventh overall in the 2024 draft, but more realistically, they'd pick around fifth. The Patriots have an outside chance at the number two overall pick with a loss to the Jets.
The Patriots will try to set a franchise record with a 16th consecutive win over the Jets at 1 p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.