The Patriots are en route to the desert for Sunday's game against the Raiders, with several players ruled out as the team travels to Las Vegas.
New England has ruled out wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie Demario Douglas, as the two Pats wideouts remain in concussion protocol, OL Riley Reiff (knee), G Cole Strange (knee), special teams ace Cody Davis (knee), OT Tyrone Wheatley (knee), and LB Matthew Judon (elbow).
Besides the downgrades, the rest of the active roster traveled to Vegas with the team on Friday. The Patriots have a hefty list that includes 10 players who are questionable for Sunday's game: DL Christian Barmore (knee), OT Trent Brown (chest), S Kyle Dugger (foot), DL Trey Flowers (foot), DL Davon Godchaux (ankle), CB Jonathan Jones (ankle), OL Mike Onwenu (ankle), WR Tyquan Thornton (shoulder), LB Josh Uche (knee), CB Shaun Wade (shoulder).
With the Patriots wide receivers short-handed this week, it's a potential opportunity for some of the younger receivers on the roster to step up. After practicing all week in a limited capacity, the Pats are hopeful that second-year WR Tyquan Thornton (shoulder) will be activated for Sunday's game. Thornton sustained a shoulder injury during the Patriots joint practices with the Packers over the summer, making a diving catch from quarterback Mac Jones. Thornton began the year on in-season injured reserve for the second straight season, with the team opening his practice window, making him eligible to return this week.
Although injuries have plagued the 50th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Thornton can bring a speed element to an offense that desperately needs vertical separation. At this point, the idea of Thornton is much more enticing than his actual on-field production, but adding his 4.28 speed to a passing attack that ranks dead-last in total EPA through five weeks can't hurt. In camp, it also appeared that offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien had a plan to help the slender wideout get free releases as an off-the-line receiver in the slot, with motion, or out of stack and bunch alignments.
Along with Thornton's potential return, rookie WR Kayshon Boutte, who has been a healthy scratch over the last four games, could be active this week. Boutte struggled as an outside receiver in Week 1, but he was more of an inside/Z receiver at LSU. In many ways, the role Boutte should be playing is similar to Smith-Schuster's as a catch-and-run threat on in-breaking routes (slants), which the veteran wideout has struggled to generate yards on this season. Maybe the rookie wideout, who showed some juice in the preseason, can produce more on those routes.
There's also the possibility that the Patriots could elevate rookie QB/WR Malik Cunningham or WR Jalen Reagor from the practice squad this week. Cunningham received praise from head coach Bill Belichick and O'Brien this week, with the Pats OC calling him one of the most improved players on the practice squad this season. Belichick added that Cunningham is "trending" toward having a game-day role in the future.
"Malik's really worked hard and made a lot of improvement," Belichick said on Friday morning. "He never really played in the kicking game at Louisville, so he's started to show up there, never played receiver – didn't look very good either, in the spring, but he's really improved there. He can catch the ball, but just route running and finding zones and things like that. But, it's come pretty naturally to him. He plays a good amount of quarterback. He's competent there. He's a smart kid, works hard, and the opportunities he's had, he's shown a lot of improvement. It's a little too early for an induction ceremony here, but definitely a lot of improvement."
According to O'Brien, Cunningham has mainly worked at wide receiver during practice, not quarterback, where he has mimicked running QBs on the scout team but hasn't taken many quarterback reps in the Patriots offense. The undrafted rookie is an option at wide receiver, but he might not have the practice time to use him in a Taysom Hill-type package yet.
As for Reagor, who was elevated once already this season, Belichick lauded his talent as a former first-rounder, "he's a first-round pick. He's a talented guy."
The Patriots have two healthy regulars at wide receiver in Kendrick Bourne and DeVante Parker, so you'd expect the team to at least have two other options active on Sunday. The most likely choices are Thornton, assuming he's activated off injured reserve, and Boutte, since they're on the 53-man roster. But based on the positive reviews for Cunningham and Reagor, they may also be game-day options.
On the offensive line, the Pats ruled out veteran OL Riley Reiff and G Cole Strange, an unfortunate development after Reiff looked serviceable in last week's loss to the Saints. Reiff must've suffered a setback with a knee injury that occurred in the preseason finale that landed him on injured reserve, playing in his first game of the season and allowing only one hurry in Week 5. From this perspective, Reiff was one of the Patriots most effective lineman last week. OT Trent Brown (chest) and OL Mike Onwenu (ankle) have a chance to play after being listed as questionable.
Onwenu told reporters he was removed from last week's blowout loss for precautionary reasons, signaling that the Pats starting right guard will play on Sunday, while Brown popped up on the injury report last week with a chest issue but played through the injury last week with the expectation that he'll play again on Sunday. Based on the information at hand, our best guess is that the Patriots starting offensive line, barring an unexpected setback for the banged-up group, will be: LT Trent Brown, LG Atonio Mafi, C David Andrews, RG Michael Onwenu, at RT Vederian Lowe.
Moving over to the defense, the Pats have two core contributors whose status bears watching as the game inches closer: S Kyle Dugger (foot) and LB Josh Uche (knee). Both regulars are questionable after participating in practice in a limited capacity this week. As the defense tries to create more turnovers while covering up the losses of Judon and first-year CB Christian Gonzalez (IR, shoulder), Dugger and Uche are key pieces to hold things together defensively.
The next step for the Patriots is potential activations (Thornton, Trey Flowers) from the reserve lists and practice squad elevations on Saturday. Most likely, we won't hear about the statuses of the numerous questionable players until pre-game inactives are announced by the team ahead of Sunday's 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff in Las Vegas.
The Patriots will try to snap a two-game losing streak when they visit the Raiders on Sunday.
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