Patriots Mailbag: Leonard Johnson Could Lessen Impact Of Devin McCourty’s Injury


December 18, 2015

The New England Patriots have managed to stay unpredictable despite what should be an easy matchup with the Tennessee Titans this weekend.

The Patriots placed running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive tackle Dominique Easley on injured reserve, claimed a former starting receiver and offensive tackle off waivers, worked out a former All-Pro running back and signed a former Heisman finalist to the practice squad. It’s all in a week’s work for head coach Bill Belichick.

Find out which of those transactions will have the biggest impact on the 2015 Patriots in this week’s mailbag.

@DougKyed does Hankerson figure to factor into the offense or is he just depth?
— @walkingbluebear
If he gets up to speed quickly, I could see newly acquired wide receiver Leonard Hankerson having a role in the Patriots’ offense.

Hankerson could wind up doing nothing for the Patriots this season, but it feels like folks are underestimating the signing. Hankerson was a No. 2/3 receiver on a 6-1 Atlanta Falcons team until he suffered a lingering hamstring injury. He hasn’t been a regular starter during his NFL career, but he has size, speed and solid route-running skills.

I could see Hankerson picking up a niche role — similar to the one Aaron Dobson had earlier in the season — specializing on deep and intermediate routes. If the Patriots suffer an injury, Hankerson could pick up an even bigger role if he acclimates quickly.

Keshawn Martin knows the system better, and he’s more versatile, but Hankerson’s had a more productive NFL career so far.

Let’s put it this way: If the Patriots had traded for Hankerson back in September, fans would have been thrilled, right? He has less time to catch up now, but he could still make an impact.

@DougKyed Which of the recently acquired players will have the biggest impact this season?
— @JimGilhooly1957
Does this include Leonard Johnson? Because if so, I’m definitely giving it to the cornerback, who signed last week and dominated in his Patriots debut. Johnson figures to be the Patriots’ slot cornerback for the rest of the season.

If this only includes players signed this week — Hankerson, offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle, defensive tackle Ishmaa’ily Kitchen and practice squad running back Montee Ball, wide receiver DeAndre Carter and linebacker Kevin Snyder — I’d put them in order like so:

1. Kitchen: It’s unclear what his role will be with Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga already at defensive tackle, but he’ll likely rotate into the group against teams with a run-heavy offense. It’s easier to acclimate to the Patriots at defensive tackle than at an offensive skill-position.
2. Hankerson: The receiver has a steep hill to climb before picking up the offense enough to contribute regularly, but he’s already on the 53-man roster, which is a step above Ball.
3. Ball: The running back could be the Patriots’ No. 3 running back this week. Being on the practice squad, however, there’s an equal chance he’s not even on the team next week.
4. Waddle: He’s the fourth offensive tackle on the roster. Depending on how he looks in practice, he could supplant Cameron Fleming as the Patriots’ top backup.
5. Carter: Carter doesn’t have a great chance of being called up to the 53-man roster.
6. Snyder: Ditto, and linebacker is more loaded than receiver on the Patriots’ roster.

@DougKyed Do you think you’ll avoid IR until the playoffs?
My dog almost gave me a black eye Thursday during an overly enthusiastic greeting. That could have knocked me off TV for a couple days. I should be fine, though, as long as I avoid any finger, face or vocal injuries.

@DougKyed Why put Montee on the practice squad if they aren’t going to get jackson?
— @paddyflan
It’s still unclear if the Patriots will elect to sign Steven Jackson or not, but signing Ball to the practice squad, rather than the 53-man roster, gives the team flexibility this week. They were able to add Hankerson and Waddle by only cutting receiver Damaris Johnson.

The Patriots can still add Ball to the active roster before Sunday’s game. That decision likely would come Saturday at 4 p.m.

@DougKyed can Pats maintain 2 RBs going forward?
— @DwashedWADE
No, that’s simply not enough depth at the position.

If the Patriots don’t sign Jackson, they’ll likely promote Ball or Joey Iosefa from the practice squad. I think the Patriots ideally want to have someone take over the early-down role and have Brandon Bolden continue to focus on special teams and as a reserve in the “big back” and “sub” roles. That’s how he adds most value to the team.

@DougKyed W/ Easley done how much will not having a true 3 technique rusher hurt the Pats? Stats weren’t there but Easley passed eye test
— @Matthewp13
The Patriots’ pass rush won’t live up to its fullest potential for the rest of the year, but Akiem Hicks is a solid three-technique pass rusher, as he proved with two sacks and two QB hits late in Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans.

The Patriots also will receive a boost when Dont’a Hightower returns from his knee injury, both in the pass rush and run defense.

The Patriots’ pass rush has been very solid this year, and while Easley’s injury will hurt, it’s certainly not a season-killer.

@DougKyed What kind of adjustments will the Patriots coaches make because of the McCourty injury?
— @_BillM
The Patriots have perhaps the best backup free safety in the NFL in Duron Harmon, so they’re still in good hands back in the center field role.

McCourty is faster and more versatile than Harmon, so there is some dropoff there, but Harmon, who I’ve dubbed “The Closer,” has great range and has shown a knack for making big plays, especially toward the end of games — hence, the nickname.

The bigger issue might be finding a replacement for Harmon, actually. He averages 36 snaps a game as the Patriots’ nickel/dime defensive back, sharing deep duties with McCourty in a Cover-2 and allowing McCourty to play near the line of scrimmage in a Cover-1 or 3.

Cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and Justin Coleman and safeties Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson can replace McCourty’s reps near the line of scrimmage in one-on-one coverage against receivers and tight ends, but the Patriots don’t have another proven option to play the deep part of the field.

The Patriots were using McCourty, Chung and Wilson in cornerback-esque roles while Coleman was out with a hand injury. Johnson was excellent against the Texans and likely will keep the pseudo-starting nickel role.

Rookie Jordan Richards likely will share the deep portion of the field when the Patriots send two safeties back in a Cover-2 or Cover-4. He hasn’t played that role often this season, however.

@DougKyed is national lampoons Christmas vacation the best Christmas movie of all time?
— @eltorro71
No, “Home Alone” is the best Christmas movie of all time, but “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” is a very close second.

@DougKyed what’d you ask Santa for?
— @PP_Rich_Hill
Early afternoon playoff kickoffs, new suits, plaid shirts, some hair product and maybe a free trip to San Francisco in early February.

Oh, and WrestleMania tickets.

@DougKyed thoughts on roman reigns being champ? Who should be the next contender?
— @Vanoss20Wong
I think WWE did a nice job of staying as unpredictable as possible with having Roman Reigns win the belt. I didn’t watch all of “Raw” this week, but from what I saw, I certainly didn’t expect Reigns walk out with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship because of how rarely we see belts change hands outside a pay-per-view.

I think WWE has a few choices. I’d love to see Kevin Owens or Dean Ambrose, but the more likely challengers are Sheamus, Brock Lesnar, John Cena and Triple H.

It sounds boring on paper, but I think Cena would make a great adversary for Reigns.

Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Dec 13, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Leonard Johnson (34) and cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) celebrate after a defensive play during the second half against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Texans 27-6. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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