FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots are 1-2 on the season, have lost consecutive games, and now injuries are mounting. Needless to say, the start of the 2018 season hasn’t been sunshine, rainbows and puppy dogs for the Patriots.
The Patriots placed running back Rex Burkhead and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley on injured reserve Wednesday. Both players are eligible to return after eight games.
Burkhead is a versatile, and oft-injured, running back who can run between the tackles, catch passes out of the backfield and play on special teams. Bentley, a 2018 fifth-round pick, started Weeks 1 and 3 for the Patriots. He was third among linebackers in snaps behind Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower and despite being known as a “thumper” in college, he might have been the Patriots’ most athletic linebacker. Six of the Patriots’ nine 2018 NFL Draft picks are now on injured reserve. Only running back Sony Michel and cornerback Keion Crossen remain on the 53-man roster. Quarterback Danny Etling is on the practice squad.
The Patriots’ running backs ranks are thin. They have Michel as their only “big” back at 5-foot-11, 215 pounds. Behind him are James White, a third-down pass-catcher, and Kenjon Barner, who’s all of 5-foot-9, 195 pounds. It would be logical to sign another running back to who can carry the ball between the tackles, but the Patriots didn’t make that move Wednesday. They could elect to sign Ralph Webb off their practice squad to take on some of the workload, but he’s also only 5-foot-10, 200 pounds.
The Patriots have worked out running backs Orleans Darkwa, Charcandrick West, Charles Sims and Andre Ellington. It seems unlikely the Patriots would add one of those players before Week 4, but they might be possibilities in the future.
At linebacker, the Patriots are down to Hightower, Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Nicholas Grigsby and special-teamer Brandon King. Losing Bentley likely means Hightower won’t be moving to defensive end, as many have suggested the Patriots should do to account for his lost step. It also means more of Roberts. Roberts will be the Patriots’ No. 3 linebacker, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get starting snaps when the Patriots elect to play Hightower or Van Noy on the edge.
Roberts was inconsistent in Week 3, but he had more good plays than bad. He has a propensity for big plays — both made and allowed.
The Patriots signed edge defender John Simon on Wednesday, but he’s more of defensive end than off-the-ball linebacker.
The Patriots could experiment with using Grigsby, mostly a special-teamer, more on defense. He’s played just four defensive snaps all season, but he’s faster than Hightower, Van Noy or Roberts.
Overall, the injuries to Burkhead and Bentley decrease the potential of the 2018 Patriots. Both players could have made an impact on their respective side of the ball, and now they’re out for at least eight games.
If Michel can live up to his first-round potential, then the Patriots would, in theory, be fine at running back. But what if he also goes down with an injury? The Patriots currently have no other option to carry the ball between the tackles. That’s dangerous, especially given Michel’s history of knee injuries.
And Bentley likely was going to improve as the season progressed. Players like Roberts and Grigsby have significantly less upside to boost the struggling defense.
All hope is not lost for the 2018 Patriots, but it’s been a tough start for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images