The Patriots have several question marks on the injury front heading into a Christmas Eve trip to Denver for Sunday night's matchup vs. the Broncos.
New England ruled out RB Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle), S Jabrill Peppers (hamstring), and WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (ankle) on Friday's final injury report. The Patriots also listed nine players as questionable: DL Christian Barmore (shoulder), LB Ja'Whaun Bentley (knee), OT Trent Brown (ankle/hand), TE Hunter Henry (knee), LB Anfernee Jennings (illness), CB Jonathan Jones (knee), OT Conor McDermott (concussion), ST Matthew Slater (hamstring), and LB Jahlani Tavai (ankle).
Starting on offense, second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe's supporting cast is uncertain at the moment. Although he was spotted at the first two practices this week, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster did not participate in Friday's session and has been ruled out. Following a breakout 90-yard performance in a win over the Steelers in Week 14, Smith-Schuster will now miss his second consecutive game due to an ankle injury.
Along with Smith-Schuster, the Patriots offense could be without starting tight end Hunter Henry. Henry leads the team in receptions (42) and receiving touchdowns (six), while he is second with 419 receiving yards. Henry has been an extremely reliable chain-mover for Zappe, but Henry left the loss to the Chiefs after taking a hard hit to the knee from Chiefs CB L'Jaruis Sneed.
Frankly, Zappe's throw on the play was one of a few passes that threw Henry into harm's way. The concept was a simple curl-flat on third-and-3, and Zappe made the incorrect read, with an open Pop Douglas being the better option on the play. Instead, Snead fell off Douglas's route and triggered downhill to take out Henry. To add insult to injury, the pass was ruled incomplete.
If the Patriots are short-handed without Henry and Smith-Schuster, New England will have Mike Gesicki and Pharaoh Brown at tight end. While at wide receiver, the Patriots options are Demario Douglas, DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton, Jalen Reagor, and Kayshon Boutte.
On top of injuries to their top pass-catchers, the Patriots also have uncertainty along the offensive line. Starting left tackle Trent Brown (ankle/hand) has participated in a limited capacity this week in practice, while McDermott is a long shot to play.
Brown sat out last week's game with an illness, ankle, and hand injuries, but could return this week. If not, the Patriots could be down to Vederian Lowe at left tackle, who played the final 13 snaps vs. the Chiefs last Sunday. Typically, players like McDermott don't clear concussion protocol within one week to return the next game. The team also placed starting left guard Cole Strange (knee) on injured reserve this week, so rookie Atonio Mafi projects to start in his place.
The Patriots starting offensive line could look like this: LT Trent Brown/Vederian Lowe, LG Atonio Mafi, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow, and RT Mike Onwenu. It'll be interesting to see if the Patriots return to Brown as their starting left tackle. They don't have many options with McDermott in concussion protocol, but Brown's future with the team as he heads into unrestricted free agency next offseason will be worth monitoring.
Lastly, the Patriots will need to make do without Stevenson for the third straight game at running back. New England will lean on veteran Ezekiel Elliott once again, while the Pats also signed second-year RB Kevin Harris to the active roster. Harris should get more opportunities moving forward after looking the part on an 18-yard touchdown run against Kansas City.
Moving over to the defense, the Patriots have massive shoes to fill at safety without impact defender Jabrill Peppers. Peppers injured his hamstring on the final non-kneel down play from scrimmage for the Chiefs, a big blow when the game's outcome was already decided. This season, Peppers has played 95.3% of the defensive snaps, ranking fifth among safeties in Pro Football Focus's grading (87.0). The former first-round pick has been a tone-setter in the run game while forcing a fumble and intercepting two passes – a clear bright spot in a lost season.
Although it's a bummer to lose Peppers, it presents an opportunity for third-round rookie Marte Mapu. After playing eight total snaps in Weeks 10-14, Mapu played 15 defensive plays last week, recording his first career interception. Mapu has been used in a similar hybrid safety role as Peppers and Kyle Dugger, logging most of his snaps in the box (80). Hopefully, we'll get an extended look at Mapu to see the rookie's progress on Sunday night.
With a 3-11 record, the outcome of the remaining three games on the Patriots schedule is less important than the development of its younger players and recent draft picks. At this point, many fans are probably rooting for New England to lose for a better draft pick in 2024. Still, you can continue improving your draft selection while giving valuable experience to players like Keion White, Marte Mapu, Demario Douglas, Kayshon Boutte, Sidy Sow, Atonio Mafi, and others.
The Patriots will travel to Denver on Saturday afternoon for Sunday night's game, with the next steps roster-wise being downgrades and practice squad elevations. We'll keep you updated on both fronts, but with Kevin Harris now on the 53, it might not be a big week for elevations.
New England will visit the Broncos at Mile High with an 8:15 p.m. kickoff on Christmas Eve.