Miami, FL – The Patriots are set to take on the Miami Dolphins with an eye toward a two-game winning streak in the division at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.
After ruling out three players already, the Patriots inactives are OT Calvin Anderson (illness), OL Vederian Lowe (ankle), LB Josh Uche (ankle/toe), WR Kayshon Boutte, WR Tyquan Thornton, and QB Will Grier (emergency QB). That means rookie DE Keion White (concussion), DL Christian Barmore (knee), LT Trent Brown (ankle/knee), DB Jonathan Jones (knee), CB Shaun Wade (shoulder), and DL Deatrich Wise (shoulder) are active despite carrying questionable designation.
For the Dolphins, star cornerback Jalen Ramsey will make his Miami debut against the Patriots, but the Dolphins secondary will be without star CB Xavien Howard and stud safety Javon Holland in this one.
The biggest question mark heading into the game was how the Patriots would handle the wide receiver position with seven healthy wideouts on the 53-man roster. After playing only three snaps in last week's win, second-year WR Tyquan Thornton is a healthy inactive, along with rookie wideout Kayshon Boutte. The Pats active receivers are Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Demario Douglas, and Jalen Reagor.
Thornton being inactive is disappointing for the 2022 second-rounder, who also missed the first five games of the season with a shoulder injury. Thornton hasn't realized his potential as a field-stretching burner with 4.28-speed because of durability issues and route-running miscues. Although it's impossible to know for sure, Thornton doesn't appear to be on the same page with the quarterback, converting routes incorrectly throughout his first two seasons. With two different offensive systems and time missed due to injury, it's been an uphill battle for last year's 50th-overall pick.
On the other hand, it's not surprising that rookie WR Kayshon Boutte is a healthy scratch for the seventh consecutive game. Boutte hasn't seen the field since struggling in the regular-season opener and remains on the outside looking into a game-day role. This week, head coach Bill Belichick shed some light on Boutte's situation in a crowded wide receiver room.
"It's been a very competitive situation. We have a lot of competition at that position," Belichick told reporters on Friday. "Obviously, the guys that perform the best play the most. The ones that don't need to perform better. They're all competing. Again, it's very competitive."
With several inside receivers on the roster blocking his path to playing time, Boutte is behind Bourne, Smith-Schuster, and fellow rookie Demario Douglas at his natural "Z" position. On the outside, the Pats have veteran DeVante Parker and recently signed WR Jalen Reagor earning snaps. Without access to regular season practices, it's impossible to know if Boutte is making any impressions with his reps on the practice field. Given he cannot crack the game-day roster and the team's praise of Reagor, the assumption is that Boutte isn't flashing behind the scenes.
The last unknown for the Patriots receivers is how Smith-Schuster's return will impact the playing time for a receiver group that produced a season-high 29 points last week. Smith-Schuster was signed to a three-year deal in the offseason as a fit as a "Z" receiver, while he can also play the F or slot, but his first five games with the Patriots have been underwhelming.
Smith-Schuster is not a traditional X or boundary receiver, so he'd likely cut into Bourne or Douglas's snaps unless he serves exclusively as a backup. Obviously, those are the Pats two best receivers in recent weeks, so you don't want to take either Bourne or Pop off the field. If the goal is to re-integrate Smith-Schuster into the offense after a two-game absence, it'll be interesting to see how the coaches make that happen. As for sticking with Parker over Thornton and Boutte, our read on that is that Parker is the only big-body type the Patriots have in the receiver room, which gives them a matchup advantage.
Moving over to the defense, the Patriots will get a boost with the return of rookie edge rusher Keion White, who missed last week's game against the Bills due to a concussion.
Although the production isn't off the charts for White, who has just six pressures in 62 pass-rush snaps, there are positive moments on film for the second-rounder, who shows noticeable power, hand strength, and an ability to penetrate gaps along the line of scrimmage. However, White admitted that he's still working on his block recognition and gap discipline, as there are instances where he's late coming off the ball or jumping out of his gaps trying to penetrate the line.
There are rookie moments for White, who is also relatively new to the position after switching sides of the ball in college, making him a raw prospect, to begin with in the draft. Still, the Pats defense needs the depth at EDGE without Uche and star edge rusher Matthew Judon. White joins fourth-year LB Anfernee Jennings, who is coming into his own with more opportunities, as a projected starter at outside linebacker. Hybrid 'backer Jahlani Tavai will also factor into the snap distribution on the edge.
New England's defense will need to slow down a high-powered Dolphins offense without Judon and breakout first-rounder Christian Gonzalez this time. But the Pats are relatively healthy on the defensive side of the ball, with Jonathan Jones officially active after missing the first matchup with the Dolphins. Jones is known for limiting Dolphins star Tyreek Hill over the years, with Hill amassing 147 yards with zero touchdowns in six games with Jones in coverage.
With two Joneses who didn't play in the Week 2 game now healthy, the Patriots will match up against a loaded Dolphins passing attack with J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jack Jones, and CB/S Myles Bryant as their primary contributors at cornerback. The concern for the Pats secondary is how they'll handle the free safety position. Their corners will need help, especially on Hill, which could come in the form of soft zone coverages or split-safety shells, as well as their usual single-high safety structures.
From this vantage point, the Patriots might lean more heavily on veteran DB Jalen Mills at free safety, which they did at times last week, allowing Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers to play closer to the line of scrimmage where they're at their best. Peppers is having a tremendous season, splitting time between free safety and in the box. Dugger, on the other hand, has also played more free safety and has struggled to play the deep part of the field. In general, the Patriots have gone through growing pains replacing Devin McCourty at free safety this season.
Mills played 21 snaps last week, mainly in the slot (9), but he also played three snaps at free safety. Mills might be best suited to play more in the deep part of the field, allowing Dugger and Phillips to do what they do best, given Dugger's struggles playing deep. This is not the matchup to have deep safeties with issues protecting the deep part of the field, making that one area that the Patriots need to shore up this week.
New England is looking for their first win at Hard Rock Stadium since the 2019 season as they try to build off the momentum established by upsetting Buffalo last week. The Dolphins are heavy favorites like the Bills were at Gillette Stadium last week. At 2-5, the Pats need to start stacking wins together to climb back into the AFC playoff hunt with ten games remaining.
The Patriots will square off with the division rival Dolphins with kickoff at 1 p.m. ET at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.