Sunday's revelation (first reported by The Boston Globe) that running back Dion Lewis will need a second surgery on his left knee certainly puts a damper on expectations for his contribution to the 2016 Patriots.
Lewis has been on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) since the start of training camp and had not been seen until yesterday, when he briefly strode through the locker room. His protracted rehabilitation from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) last November and now subsequent follow-up operation make his return to the Patriots backfield even more difficult to predict.
One man's setback, however, could be another's opportunity.
For third-year back James White, Lewis' extended absence could provide a chance to showcase himself that otherwise might not have been available. For his part, though, White is taking nothing for granted.
"I'm always gonna be myself," he told reporters Monday. "Your role can change on the team each and every year. Whatever my role happens to be, I'm going to go out there, do it to the best of my ability, and just try to help this team win."
During his fleeting half-season a year ago, the diminutive Lewis (5-8, 195) displayed a jaw-dropping talent for making would-be tacklers miss in the open field, but also a remarkable ability to run between the tackles.
White was mostly inactive for the Patriots as a rookie, while last season saw him be used mostly as a pass-catching back. During his college career at the University of Wisconsin, he carried the ball a considerable amount like a traditional running back, but thus far in the NFL, he's not been utilized in that manner, perhaps because of his relatively smaller stature (5-9, 205).
"It happens. You're not going to be great at everything at the start," White reasoned. "You have to be patient with it sometimes… [I'm] just working hard during practice at it. That's when you're going to get the most work, when you're in pads. Trusting the run reads, knowing what you have to read, and just running hard."
"He did a lot of it at Wisconsin. He ran between the tackles a lot," head coach Bill Belichick affirmed. "Their offense, they run outside but they run a lot between the tackles and they run a lot, period. I think the thing that jumped out with him was how proficient he was in the passing game based on what we saw in college, and I think his run skills were good. I think they are good. I think they need some refinement. It's a little bit different in this league. I think he can run the ball in there and he has taken more reps at doing that and I think that has helped him."
Tackling Vollmer's absence
There was more discouraging news Sunday with the Globe disclosure that starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, another PUP lister since camp began, is headed for injured reserve.
"I love Sebastian," left tackle and co-captain Nate Solder remarked. "Whatever he needs or whatever it is, I'll always be there for him. Sebastian is an awesome guy. He's one of my best friends. As a group, we just have to move forward… we have a long ways to go. The way we practice, the way we play, whoever is out there, we're ready to go. That's kind of our philosophy on that."
In Vollmer's stead, veteran Marcus Cannon has been occupying the right tackle spot with the first o-line unit.
"Wherever they want you to go, they have trust in you and you trust them," Cannon said. "That's what it is. If they want you play, that must mean they have trust for you to play in that position, wherever they put me."
"Yeah, he's had a good camp," Belichick observed. "He has played other positions, can play other positions, but I think [right tackle] is his best position."
New England got a head start on mandatory roster reductions the past couple of days. First, the Patriots released first-year safety Cedric Thompson, according to the player's agent. Thompson spent a portion of the 2015 season on New England's practice squad.
On Monday, the team also parted ways with veteran tight end Bear Pascoe and rookie corner/returner V'Angelo Bentley, per media reports. None of those players was at Monday's practice, either.
New England's 90-man roster is now down to 86 (safety Brock Vereen was released last week). The team must get to 75 by next Tuesday, Aug. 30, either by outright releasing them or assigning them to various reserve lists.
Quarterback Tom Brady did not practice Monday, as was expected following a Sunday report by CSNNE.com that Brady had been excused yesterday and today for non-injury reasons. Brady, though, is reportedly also dealing with an accidentally, self-inflicted wound to his right thumb. The extent of that injury is unknown and NFL injury reports are not distributed to media during the preseason.
Meanwhile, given the Vollmer situation, the Patriots need as much depth as possible at the tackle spot. So, it was noteworthy that backup tackle Cameron Fleming was not spotted at practice. He was seen several times in the Patriots locker room earlier in the day.
Another somewhat surprising absence from practice was safety Patrick Chung. It's unclear what kept him off the field.
Several other Patriots – DEs Rob Ninkovich and Shea McClellin, WRs Danny Amendola and rookie Malcolm Mitchell, running back Donald Brown, and guard Tre' Jackson – retreated to the lower practice field after the team stretching period to focus on conditioning and rehabilitation exercises for their various injuries.
Elsewhere, cornerback Logan Ryan has shed the red, no-contact jersey he sported all through training camp and is back in his normal blue defensive jersey.
There was no sign at all of tight end Rob Gronkowski (lower body), defensive end Jabaal Sheard (unknown), defensive tackle Alan Branch (reported team suspension), and guards Jonathan Cooper and Shaq Mason.