Denver, CO – After ruling out four players who remain on the active roster due to injury, the Patriots only needed to declare three game-day inactives for Sunday night's tilt vs. the Broncos.
New England's full inactives list is TE Hunter Henry (knee), S Jabrill Peppers (hamstring), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (ankle), RB Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle), ST Matthew Slater (hamstring), DE Sam Roberts, and QB Nathan Rourke (emergency third QB). Patriots captain Matthew Slater will miss his first game in nearly seven seasons (2017) while starting LT Trent Brown (ankle/hand) returns to the lineup after a one-game absence.
Starting with the Patriots available pass-catchers on Sunday night, second-year QB Bailey Zappe will have to make do without trusty tight end Hunter Henry as Zappe makes his fourth consecutive start. Henry didn't make the trip after taking a blow to the knee early in the fourth quarter of last week's loss to the Chiefs. Without their leader in receptions (42) and receiving touchdowns (six), New England elevated practice-squad TE Matt Sokol on Saturday. Sokol will back up projected core contributors Pharaoh Brown and Mike Gesicki this week.
Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien has used Brown and Gesicki in specific roles this season. Brown has been used as a traditional in-line tight end, lining up there on 89.7% of his offensive snaps. Gesicki, on the other hand, has played 334 of his 413 snaps as a detached receiver, either in the slot or out wide (80.9%). One would expect New England to continue playing Brown and Gesicki in their respective roles, with Brown taking over Henry's early-down snaps and Gesicki playing in the passing game, while Sokol could factor in as a run blocker.
Along with having three active tight ends still sans Henry, the Patriots wide receivers will be DeVante Parker, Demario Douglas, Tyquan Thornton, Jalen Reagor, and Kayshon Boutte. In the backfield, the Pats will lean on Ezekiel Elliott, Kevin Harris, and JaMychal Hasty without Stevenson. Boutte is back in the lineup for the first time since Week 12.
Along the offensive line, the Patriots made several roster moves heading into a Christmas Eve contest in Denver. After placing starting LG Cole Strange (knee) and top swing tackle Conor McDermott (concussion) on injured reserve, New England signed veteran G/C James Ferentz to the 53-man roster to bolster its interior offensive line depth. Ferentz spent the first 15 weeks of the season on the Pats practice squad, serving as a pseudo-coach.
For those who aren't aware, Ferentz's father, Kirk Ferentz, is the current head coach at the University of Iowa. Ferentz's brother, Brian, was Iowa's offensive coordinator from 2017 to 2023. With coaching running deep in the Ferentz family, the veteran has often been a sounding board for younger players in the O-Line room. Now, he'll serve as a top backup to rookie guards Atonio Mafi and Sidy Sow, who are projected to start at left and right guard, respectively.
As for left tackle, that situation is more murky. Although he is active after sitting out the loss to the Chiefs, starting tackle Trent Brown hasn't had a full workload since Week 8. Brown has been battling various injuries lately, particularly a bad ankle sprain that has held him out of three games. In his last three appearances, Brown was in a rotation with McDermott at left tackle since the big left tackle was too limited by injuries to go wire-to-wire. With the Pats top swing tackle now out for the season, fourth-string OT Vederian Lowe could be called upon to rotate with Brown. Lowe played the final 13 snaps in last week's loss to Kansas City.
With the injuries continuing to pile up for the Patriots offensive line, New England's projected starting offensive line is LT Trent Brown/Vederian Lowe, LG Atonio Mafi, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow, and RT Mike Onwenu against the Broncos. Denver ranks seventh in blitz rate this season, so a group that hasn't played much football together will be tested mentally.
Moving over to the defense, the Patriots will need to replace playmaking safety Jabrill Peppers in a banged-up secondary on Sunday night in Denver. New England placed starting corner J.C. Jackson on the NFI list earlier this week while starting CB Jonathan Jones has been playing through a knee injury. This season, Peppers has played 95.3% of the defensive snaps while ranking fifth among safeties in Pro Football Focus grade (87.0). Peppers has been a tone-setter for the defense, making 28 run stops, intercepting two passes, and forcing a fumble.
Although it's tough to see a clear bright spot in a tough season lost to injury, Peppers's absence presents an opportunity for rookie third-rounder Marte Mapu to play a larger role. Mapu played 15 snaps against Kansas City last week, logging his first career interception. Along with Mapu, veteran DB Jalen Mills could also have an increased role. Last week, Mills was involved in many of the coverages the Patriots ran to slow down Chiefs TE Travis Kelce (five catches, 28 yards).
The Patriots secondary will likely feature this group against Russell Wilson and the Broncos on Sunday night: CB Jonathan Jones, CB Myles Bryant, CB Alex Austin, S Kyle Dugger, DB Jalen Mills, and S/LB Marte Mapu. Shaun Wade is active this week after being a healthy scratch last week and is another option at cornerback potentially in Austin's spot.
On special teams, the Patriots will have to cover kicks without special teams ace Matthew Slater for the first time since the 2017 season. The Pats elevated practice-squad CB Breon Borders, who could have a role in the kicking game. New England will also need core special teamers Brenden Schooler, Chris Board, Cody Davis, and Adrian Phillips to step up.
At 3-11, New England is in a position now where the final three games are as much about player development and evaluating the roster for a massive 2024 offseason for the organization. We should get a great look at the 2023 draft class with Keion White, Marte Mapu, Sidy Sow, Atonio Mafi, Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas expected to have bigger roles.
Many fans are probably pulling for the Patriots to lose to improve their draft pick. Frankly, the best thing for the team is to play a competitive game with young players emerging but losing in the end down the stretch. Nobody likes being in this position, but that's an honest assessment.
The Patriots will square off with the Broncos at Empower Field with kickoff at 8:15 p.m. ET on Sunday night.
DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer