The Patriots are heading into a contest against the Commanders with some notable questions about the health of the roster for Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium.
Along with ruling out WR DeVante Parker (concussion) and OL Calvin Anderson (illness), the Patriots listed ten players as questionable on Friday's final injury report: DL Christian Barmore (knee), LB Ja'Whaun Bentley (hamstring), OT Trent Brown (ankle/knee), TE Pharaoh Brown (back), DT Davon Godchaux (illness), CB Jonathan Jones (knee), OL Vederian Lowe (ankle), WR Tyquan Thornton (foot), LB Josh Uche (ankle/toe), and DL Deatrich Wise (shoulder).
Starting on offense, New England knew it would likely be shorthanded at the wide receiver position following a season-ending injury to WR Kendrick Bourne (knee) and Parker exiting the game after a helmet-to-helmet hit. Now, Thornton is a late addition to the injury report as a limited participant on Friday and is officially questionable due to a foot injury.
Earlier this week, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien cited Thornton's struggles to stay healthy as a reason for his lack of a role in the offense, so surely this latest injury won't help matters. Due to being unavailable, in-season signing Jalen Reagor seemingly passed him on the depth chart, while this latest injury doesn't bode well for Thornton having a large role on Sunday.
"Injuries have been something in his brief career that have held him back a little bit. When you get injured, and you're out for as long as he has been, through no fault of his own, but because of the fact that you've missed time, it's hard to get back into the lineup right away," O'Brien said earlier this week. "There's other guys that have been playing. There's a depth chart."
Understandably, Pats fans probably also want to see rookie Kayshon Boutte get an opportunity to play, with Boutte's natural position being more of a "Z" receiver who moves around the formation rather than a boundary/X receiver. Over the summer and during his college days at LSU, Boutte's standout trait has always been his catch-and-run ability on quick-hitting slants and other in-breaking routes. As an explosive athlete, Boutte flashed those skills on a 42-yard touchdown against the Packers in the Patriots second preseason game in August.
However, Boutte has been inactive for the last seven games after an up-and-down performance in the regular-season opener. Since failing to get a second foot in bounds on a critical fourth down play late in a Week 1 loss, along with another failed third-down target earlier in the game, Boutte has been demoted to the healthy inactive list behind Bourne, Parker, Reagor, and fellow rookie Demario Douglas.
During his media availability on Friday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had a positive update on the sixth-round rookie that could suggest he'll have a role in this week's game plan.
"I think this has probably been his best week [of practice]," Belichick said. "Performance, consistency, assignment production – practice is practice, but there are opportunities out there for everybody. You either take advantage of them or don't take advantage of them."
"I think all the receivers, they recognize the situation. It's an opportunity for the guys that are out there, and they're trying hard to make the most of it."
The big question as it pertains to the game plan and roles in the offense this week is will the Patriots coaches give Boutte a chance to earn more playing time, or will they stick with the most recent depth chart? With the young wideouts inactive last week, Smith-Schuster (for Bourne) and Reagor (for Parker) were the ones who took over following the in-game injuries.
Although the outside noise wants the kids to play, the reality is that Smith-Schuster is a well-paid veteran with a similar skillset to Bourne. Now that he's healthy, it would be an upset to see Bourne's snaps go to Boutte over the Pats free-agent addition. There's a world where Boutte plays alongside Smith-Schuster in three-receiver sets. Obviously, those would include Douglas as well. But we'd expect JuJu to be the "starter" this week.
Along the offensive line, we'd expect starting left tackle Trent Brown (ankle/knee) to gut another out as he plays through multiple injuries. After missing the first two practices, Brown returned to practice on Friday, indicating he'll try to give it a go. It was clear that he was hobbled against the Dolphins, allowing a season-high four quarterback pressures (three hits). Brown deserves credit for battling through injuries to be available for his team. With the big left tackle projected to start, the Patriots will probably stick with the same offensive line they've had the last two weeks: LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow, and RT Mike Onwenu.
Moving over to the defense, another situation to monitor pre-game is the availability of pass-rusher Josh Uche. Uche remains a Patriot following trade deadline speculation that he could be dealt, but he hasn't played in the last two games due to ankle and toe injuries. Uche practiced in a limited capacity all week, a step in the right direction.
Without their two top pass-rushers on the edge, the Pats have turned up their blitz rate considerably to generate pressure on opposing QBs, which was effective against Buffalo but left the secondary vulnerable in the loss to the Dolphins. If he can return this week, Uche can win one-on-one, so hopefully, they don't need to blitz as often. Washington quarterback Sam Howell has been sacked a league-high 41 times, many of which are because the young QB is causing sacks himself. For the Patriots to get a win, they need to turn up the heat on Howell.
The Commanders offense will also be without starting wide receiver Curtis Samuel. Samuel will miss Sunday's game due to a toe injury.
The final step for the Patriots, as always, is Saturday roster moves where the team can elevate players from the practice squad. Veteran OT Conor McDermott is a strong candidate to be elevated as insurance from the practice squad for the third consecutive game. At some point, McDemott could land on the 53-man roster. We'll keep you updated.
The Patriots will look to get back in the win column when they host the Commanders on Sunday.