Reinforcements are on the way for the New England Patriots’ offense.
The Patriots, who finished with nearly as many three-and-outs (seven) as offensive points (nine) Sunday in a 16-10 road victory over the Buffalo Bills, will get veteran tight end Ben Watson back from suspension this week, providing a boost to a position group that’s lacked depth and production through the first quarter of the NFL season.
With Watson forced to sit out the first four games after being popped for performance-enhancing drugs during his brief offseason retirement, the Patriots have to this point relied on Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse to fill the spot formerly occupied by superstar Rob Gronkowski. So far, that duo has combined for a grand total of four catches on five targets for 77 yards and no touchdowns.
Izzo was known for his blocking ability when he arrived in New England as a 2018 seventh-round draft pick, but he has struggled mightily in that area, posting the worst Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade of any NFL tight end with at least 50 run-block snaps. He’s committed three penalties, tied with cornerback Stephon Gilmore for the most on the team.
As for LaCosse, he simply hasn’t been available. Since injuring his ankle in the Patriots’ preseason opener, he’s played just 53 offensive snaps and sat out two of the team’s first four regular-season games. LaCosse logged 41 snaps in a Week 2 win over the Miami Dolphins — and played well with two catches for 33 yards and a few key blocks — but was inactive against the New York Jets the following week and played just 12 snaps in Buffalo to Izzo’s 44.
LaCosse’s lone notable contribution Sunday was the downfield pick he delivered to spring Josh Gordon for a 31-yard gain — a play that almost certainly would have drawn an offensive pass interference penalty had Bills cornerback Levi Wallace not successfully avoided him.
So, what can the 38-year-old Watson bring to this group? At the very least, his presence should help New England’s stagnant running game and give quarterback Tom Brady — his teammate from 2004 to 2009 — an experienced, familiar target to throw to.
Watson won’t come close to posting Gronk-like receiving numbers, but he was a reliable and moderately productive pass-catcher for the Baltimore Ravens in 2017 and the New Orleans Saints in 2018, totaling 96 receptions for 922 yards and six touchdowns over 32 games and catching more than 76 percent of his targets in each of the last two seasons. He caught two passes on three targets for 24 in 42 preseason snaps this summer before a cheap shot from Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid knocked him out of New England’s third exhibition game.
With his suspension now officially over, Watson can return to practice Wednesday and is eligible to make his season debut Sunday afternoon against the winless Washington Redskins. As is the norm in these situations, Patriots were granted a roster exemption, meaning they won’t need to officially activate Watson and make a corresponding roster move until Saturday afternoon.
It remains to be seen which player will be removed from the 53-man roster to make room for Watson. Third-string quarterback Cody Kessler, who signed with the team last week and was inactive against the Bills, is a prime candidate.