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Replay: Best of Patriots.com Radio Thu Feb 29 - 02:00 PM | Tue Mar 05 - 11:55 AM

New Patriots Contributors Needed as Injuries Continue to Strike

Examining how the Patriots might overcome a collection of injuries that befell them in Miami.

Wk8-2023-OneBigThingPDC

The injury attrition of 2023 continued to hit the Patriots hard in their loss to Miami, as the Pats saw three key players leave the game and not return. Offensively, two more wide receivers went down, with Kendrick Bourne getting twisted up on a tackle and suffering what appeared to be a knee injury and DeVante Parker taking a hard hit that also sent him to the locker room. 

The receiver room has been battered this season, with Parker, Juju Smith-Schuster and Demario Douglas already having missed games and now things will get complicated again, with a report from Mike Garofalo breaking on Monday morning that Bourne tore his ACL and is expected to miss the rest of the season.

Defensively, it was Ja'Whaun Bentley, the captain and key player in the middle of the defense, who left the game with a hamstring injury and was later ruled out. Bentley is second in the team in tackles and had already seen an elevated role on defense after the loss of talented pass rusher Matthew Judon. The three-time captain was one of the bright spots on defense this season, as Bourne and Bentley have been putting together two excellent seasons, with Bourne already matching his 2022 output with a team-leading 37 catches through the first eight games of the season, and was on pace to set career highs in catches, yardage and touchdowns. Losing that twosome would be just another significant hit in a season that has already seen two of their best and most promising players, Judon and Christian Gonzalez, lost for the year.

Now, at 2-6, the Patriots could be forced to look for contributions from new places as they try to break back into the win column, starting this weekend when they host the Commanders. With two games to go until the bye, including a matchup with the Colts in Frankfurt, Germany, New England has a break approaching that comes with a chance to get healthy, but these two games could provide an opportunity for some experimentation with some different players that have been waiting for expanded opportunities.

Here's how the team could choose to make up the difference.

Receiver

Bourne has been one bright spot for the offense this year and it's clear that there's no easy way to make up for his on-field production and off-field energy.

"KB is a great teammate and a great friend of mine," said Mac Jones after the game. "He does a great job coming to work and staying positive. I have a lot of love for KB, I hope he's OK. I didn't see him in there, but I really do. Off the field, he's one of my best friends, honestly. So I have a lot of respect for him and his family and everybody. So I hope he's OK."

Bourne's played a fairly balanced role in the offense, with about two-thirds of his snaps coming on the outside and one-third coming in the slot. That kind of balance is hard to reproduce, but the obvious choices to fill in are Juju Smith-Schuster and Kayshon Boutte. Smith-Schuster had barely played in the game against Miami until Bourne was lost, then put up a touchdown in 18 snaps. In his 211 snaps this season he's had similar inside-outside balance to Bourne.

Boutte hasn't been active for a game since Week 1 when he filled in for Parker as the primary X-receiver. Boutte is not that kind of a primary outside receiver, and now, with a need in the slot, it could be just the kind of opportunity he needs to get back into the lineup. And at 2-6, the time has arrived for getting young players as many snaps as possible as the team feels out which players will be part of the future. Boutte is certainly one of those players.

The Patriots played one game already this season without DeVante Parker but he's a unique big-bodied outside receiver with no comparable backup. There are two choices to consider. The first is Jalen Reagor, who was promoted from the practice squad last week and split snaps at the X-receiver spot with Parker against the Bills. Reagor's snap totals increased against Miami, playing 58 percent of them, however in two games he has just one catch on three targets. In theory, the former first-rounder's speed should benefit the offense, but thus far Reagor has yet to put up any production outside one catch against Buffalo.

A second outside option is Tyquan Thornton, the 2022 second-round pick who was inactive against the Dolphins. Thornton's speed should make him an effective outside option, but he's played just 28 snaps all year and has had trouble breaking through in 2023 after starting the regular season off on IR for the second straight year. Both Reagor and Thornton have speed, but neither has been able to turn it into tangible production yet. It would make sense to see the duo complement each other as the team looks for another outside threat to potentially fill-in for Parker.

Ja'Whaun Bentley

Bentley's value to the defense cannot be overstated and there's no easy solution to replacing one of the most productive and experienced members of the defense, especially the primary playcaller who is on pace to play the most snaps of his six-year career. After losing Bentley in the second quarter, Jahlani Tavai (94 percent of snaps) and Mack Wilson (58 percent of snaps) were the primary players called upon to fill in.

Wilson's role had already expanded in recent weeks after the loss of Judon as well as Josh Uche's absence the last two weeks. With razor-thin depth along the edge, Wilson was called upon to serve as more of an edge-rushing specialist. It has been Wilson's most significant action on defense since early during the 2022 season. His seven tackles against the Dolphins were his most as a Patriot.

Tavai has quietly been having an outstanding season. He's currently PFF's 13th-ranked linebacker while easily on pace to set career highs in tackles and sacks. With Bentley in the mix, Tavai has been seamlessly rotating between off-the-ball and the edge, providing a physical yet surprisingly athletic presence. Moving him more to a full-time off-the-ball role might limit the effectiveness he brings on the edge, but it will also give him a chance to showcase his range and aggressiveness inside.

However, that shift will continue to eat into the depth along the edge, already thinned without Judon and Uche. Wilson should continue to see expanded action, while rookie Keion White was disruptive in his return as he shifted between a hand-down defensive end role and a standing edge role. White played a season-high 81 snaps in his return from a concussion suffered against the Raiders and is another intriguing option to see a boost in playing time.

Finally, the Patriots could also tap into their versatile safety group to help fill a potential void left by Bentley. Adrian Phillips has seen double-digit snaps in the box over the last two weeks, but has essentially remained a back-up role player this season. Marte Mapu has similarly floated between linebacker and safety, and was more of a safety in his 18 snaps against the Dolphins. For the season he's seen 65 snaps in the box and 47 on the back end at safety. That duo can help offset the diminished depth along the second level.

Making up for Bentley would be up to multiple players, but likely starts with Tavai becoming the primary inside linebacker and playcaller. From there the team has options to fill in around him depending on the opponent and situation, which should include an expanded role for rookie Mapu.

In the long run, it could prove to be a positive, as younger players get extended looks and opportunities at new places with a significant volume of snaps.

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