The Patriots are making their final preparations for Sunday's regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, releasing the final injury report heading into Week 1.
New England ruled out cornerback Jack Jones (hamstring) while listing the following players as questionable for Sunday's game against the Eagles: QB Matt Corral (not injury related), OL Mike Onwenu (ankle), RB Rhamondre Stevenson (illness), WR DeVante Parker (knee), and G Cole Strange (knee). Most players listed with game designations were expected, but running back Rhamondre Stevenson was a surprise absence at Friday's practice with an illness. The good news is that Stevenson is expected to play after a rest day, according to multiple reports.
Although it's a positive update on Stevenson, New England currently has two running backs on the 53-man roster, with veteran Ezekiel Elliott alongside Stevenson, presenting the possibility that Ty Montgomery or Kevin Harris could be elevated from the practice squad by using one of the team's two game-day elevations. Typically, the Pats have at least three running backs active on game day. Elliott and Stevenson project to split duties in the backfield, but Montgomery, a do-it-all receiver who can run routes from various alignments, would make sense as an elevation to provide depth.
On a less positive note, cornerback Jack Jones will miss Sunday's opener due to a hamstring injury he reportedly suffered in practice this week. According to The Athletic, Jones could "miss time" with the injury, suggesting it could be multiple weeks until he is healthy again.
The second-year corner's playmaking ability could've stolen a possession, but it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Jones would've had a big role in the Patriots game plan defensively this week. The Eagles elite option-heavy rushing attack stresses defensive backs to play the run and tackle soundly on the perimeter while their receivers specialize in picking up yards after the catch. Furthermore, Philly loves to test defense's eye discipline by dressing up plays with motion and misdirection, making this game all about fundamentals and assignment-sound football.
As good as Jones is as a ballhawk, he's a chance-taker in coverage who is susceptible to being manipulated out of position, and he's not the most physical run defender either. In other words, the Eagles weren't a great matchup for Jones even before the hamstring injury (he would be missed against more pass-heavy offenses like Miami next week).
Instead, the expectation is that the Patriots would rely heavily on their versatile safety group, using "big" nickel and possibly even four-safety dime packages to get as much speed on the field as possible without sacrificing too much size. With rookie Christian Gonzalez and Jonathan Jones as their primary corners, the Pats could play three-safety nickel (five DBs) to use safeties Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Jabrill Peppers as chess pieces to contain Hurts. Veteran DB Jalen Mills could also have a significant role covering tight end Dallas Goedert, with rookie Marte Mapu potentially serving as a QB spy in obvious passing situations.
When the Eagles start calling more traditional passing concepts, pure nickel corners like Myles Bryant or Marcus Jones might replace a safety to cover the third wide receiver on the field. Still, expect to see the Pats flex their depth and versatility at safety on Sunday afternoon.
Next, wide receiver DeVante Parker's availability is also uncertain for Sunday's opener. Parker was listed as limited throughout the week on the injury report and is officially questionable for Sunday's contest with a knee injury. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots playing without their primary outside receiver against Philadelphia, leaving rookies Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte as possible alternatives.
Boutte's body type and skill set lends itself more to the perimeter. He would be the favorite to see an uptick in snaps in a similar role to Parker (slants, verticals), but Douglas might still contribute as a speedy slot. The Pats could also elevate receiver Jalen Reagor from the practice squad, who can stretch the field vertically and contribute on schemed touches (jet sweeps, screens, etc.). Reagor signed to the practice squad last week, so his knowledge of the playbook might not be there to have an expansive role. But he can add a speed that gives New England a downfield element that Parker usually brings, albeit in a different form.
Ultimately, the Pats were already expected to feature wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kendrick Bourne in prominent roles. At the same time, tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki will also be heavily involved, giving quarterback Mac Jones options even if Parker can't play.
Lastly, starting guards Cole Strange (knee) and Mike Onwenu (ankle) are questionable. The two interior linemen were limited throughout the summer, with the same injuries putting their status in question for the regular-season opener, making their limited participation in practice this week an expected outcome as they work their way back to full strength.
However, the hope here is that Onwenu and Strange will play in some capacity this week, but they could be part of an interior rotation, with rookie Atonio Mafi as a strong candidate to spell the Pats starters when necessary. Assuming the best for the Pats top guards, one would expect the Patriots to start the following offensive line against the Eagles formidable front: LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Mike Onwenu, and RT Calvin Anderson. Anderson might also rotate with newcomers Vederian Lowe and Tyrone Wheatley.
New England has a challenging first opponent as the defending NFC champions come to Gillette Stadium with Tom Brady returning to Foxborough for the first time since announcing his retirement earlier this year.
The Patriots will square off with the Philadelphia Eagles at 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday.