FOXBORO, Mass. — A new need emerged for the New England Patriots on Thursday night as they saw Cyrus Jones go down and clutch his right knee in coverage during a preseason game against the New York Giants.
Jones is the Patriots’ top punt and kick returner, and while players like Dion Lewis could potentially handle kicks, there’s no clear replacement for Jones on punts if his right knee injury is serious, as it initially appeared. A source told NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport the Patriots fear Jones’ knee injury is “potentially season-ending.”
Danny Amendola has 147 career punt returns, but he’s suffered injuries on those plays in the previous two seasons. He also should see a bigger role on offense this season after Julian Edelman went down with a season-ending knee injury last Friday. Would the Patriots want to risk Amendola’s health on returns? Probably not on a full-time basis.
Wide receiver Brandin Cooks has returned 13 career punts, and safety Patrick Chung has two career punt returns. Running back D.J. Foster, who’s on the roster bubble, has never returned a punt during the regular season, but he had three returns for 32 yards during the 2016 preseason.
There’s also cornerback Will Likely, who hasn’t impressed defensively during training camp or the preseason, but he’s received plenty of opportunities to catch punts in practice. He returned 67 punts at Maryland for 875 yards with four touchdowns. He added 87 kick returns for 2,223 yards with two more touchdowns. Likely, who tore his ACL last October, returned two punts for 3 yards Thursday night.
The Patriots also might look outside the organization, either through trade or waiver claim, to fill their need. They could initially hold on to either Foster or Likely to combine with Amendola to handle the duties if they can’t acquire a player from outside the team.
The Patriots entered the preseason with three viable candidates to return punts in Edelman, Amendola and Jones. They’re down to Amendola in an unideal situation. A player like Foster or Likely could unexpectedly steal a roster spot because of an injury suffered in a meaningless Week 4 preseason battle.
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