Las Vegas, NV - The Patriots are readying for a clash with the Raiders in Las Vegas, and their game-day roster is set for Sunday's 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff.
New England's inactives were mostly already determined after ruling out seven players en route to Vegas, placing LB Matthew Judon (elbow) and OT Tyrone Wheatley (knee) on injured reserve on Saturday. The Patriots game-day inactives are OL Riley Reiff (knee), G Cole Strange (knee), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (concussion), WR Demario Douglas (concussion), QB Will Grier, WR Kayshon Boutte, and QB Bailey Zappe has been designated as the emergency third quarterback.
With both traditional backups essentially inactve, underfed rookie QB Malik Cunningham is the Patriots primary backup quarterback on Sunday. Cunningham could make his NFL debut after signing to the active roster from the practice squad on Saturday. According to reports, the Patriots have a "package" of plays in the game plan for Cunningham, who has practiced at both receiver and quarterback. The phrasing of those reports indicates that the Pats have a wrinkle with Cunningham as a designed runner, like the Saints with Taysom Hill or a "Wildcat" package.
There's also a report from NFL Network that quarterback Mac Jones is on a "short leash" if his play continues to disappoint. Jones is coming off his worst two-game stretch of his NFL career, where he has turned the ball over six times, including three defensive touchdowns. With Cunningham as the only backup option, it's harder to believe that the team would pull Jones completely for Cunningham unless the score gets out of hand, but that doesn't mean that Cunningham won't have the special package of plays that other reports have mentioned.
Ultimately, the Patriots only path to sustainable offense is Jones, who needs to play better football for this team to start winning. As fun as it would be to see Cunningham run wild in the desert, it would feel more like a one-game fad than a breakout performance for the offense. That's not to say it can't be a useful package moving forward, but you don't typically build your offense around a player like Hill in New Orleans, for example.
New England could get another offensive spark with second-year WR Tyquan Thornton returning to the lineup. The Pats have struggled to generate explosive plays, with Jones ranking 31st out of 32 quarterbacks in completion rate on deep passes (4-of-20, 20%). Furthermore, the Pats rank 31st in yards per pass attempt against man coverage, while the Raiders defense ranks dead-last in YPA allowed in man coverage. Something has to give in that matchup, where Thornton could help stretch the field.
Before injuring his shoulder in joint practices with the Packers, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien was finding ways to create free releases for the slender Thornton with more slot snaps, putting him in motion, and running Thornton out of stacks and bunches. There was a plan for the oft-injured receiver to be the field-stretcher this offense needs, but it's on Thornton to realize his potential and stay healthy for the rest of the season.
Cunningham and Thornton add to an offensive mix that includes regulars DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne, while practice squad elevation Jalen Reagor is also active. That means rookie receiver Kayshon Boutte is a healthy scratch for the fifth straight game.
It's not a great sign for Boutte's development that Cunningham and Reagor are active over the sixth-rounder from LSU. The only thing we have to go off of with Boutte is that he remains in the "dog house" because he showed poor sideline footwork in the regular-season opener when he failed to get two feet in bounds on two separate occasions, particularly a failed fourth down that effectively ended the game in Philly's favor.
Although it's frustrating that a few rookie mistakes put Boutte perpetually on the inactive list, it's important to remember that we don't see practice daily like the coaches do. Boutte may be struggling in practice or failing to grasp key playbook details, keeping him off the field. We have to trust the coaching staff on this one. They're the ones who know what's really going on behind the scenes.
As for the Patriots offensive line, there weren't any unexpected inactives as starters Trent Brown (chest) and Mike Onwenu (ankle) are active despite being questionable heading into this one. The Patriots starting offensive line should be LT Brown, LG Atonio Mafi, C David Andrews, RG Ownenu, and RT Vederian Lowe. Calvin Anderson, Sidy Sow, and Jake Andrews are available backups.
Moving over to the defense, two key Patriots who popped up on the injury report this week are active, as the defense will have S Kyle Dugger (foot) and pass-rusher Josh Uche (knee). Although they have key pieces on injured reserve, the Pats defense will have all its active roster players to slow down Josh McDaniels's Raiders offense, which has also struggled to score points this season.
Following two consecutive blowout losses, the pressure is on head coach Bill Belichick and his team to show some competitive fire this week in Vegas. Another lopsided loss will certainly turn up the panic meter even more after a week of external noise surrounding Belichick's future, and it's hard to dispute the criticisms given the state of the team at 1-4.
The Patriots and Raiders will kick off at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas at 4:05 p.m. ET.