Can Tyquan Thornton break the New England Patriots’ wide receiver draft pick curse? It’ll be quite a while before we find out.
Thornton reportedly fractured his collarbone during last Friday’s preseason win over the Carolina Panthers and will be sidelined for roughly the next two months.
The shoulder injury derailed a previously promising summer for the second-round pick. He’d seen frequent reps with Mac Jones and the first-team offense and impressed teammates and observers with his quickness and ball-tracking ability, as well as his prodigious straight-line speed.
Thornton still was behind several veterans on the Patriots’ receiver depth chart, but he at least looked like a player who could contribute as a rookie. Now, he’s likely sidelined until mid-October at the earliest.
Here are five thoughts on what Thornton’s ailment means for him and the Patriots’ offense as they enter the final week of the NFL preseason:
1. Given his tentative recovery timetable, Thornton likely will open the regular season on injured reserve. For him to be eligible to return, however, the Patriots need to give him a spot on their initial 53-man roster. That means they may have to temporarily release a player they otherwise would have kept, with the intention of re-signing him after Thornton’s move to IR is finalized.
This player ideally would be a vested veteran who is not subject to waivers, and such a move always carries some degree of risk. In 2018, the Patriots released running back Brandon Bolden on cutdown day and planned to re-sign him, but he opted to join the Miami Dolphins instead.
Backup quarterback Brian Hoyer will be mentioned as a potential candidate, but his contract structure makes that unlikely. The contract Hoyer signed this offseason includes $3 million guaranteed, so releasing him, even temporarily, would leave the Patriots with a substantial dead-money charge.
2. The crowded nature of New England’s receiving corps led many to wonder whether the team would look to offload one of its veteran wideouts before Week 1.
Most of this chatter focused on Nelson Agholor, whose $9 million salary might not be commensurate with his role after the Patriots added DeVante Parker and Thornton this offseason. Kendrick Bourne also had emerged as a dark-horse trade candidate after lagging behind his fellow receivers in training camp production. The Bourne speculation intensified after he was a surprise inactive for last week’s preseason game.
Thornton’s injury, however, should drastically lower the likelihood of a Patriots wideout being moved before the season. Their depth at the position now becomes more valuable, especially with Parker’s lengthy injury history. The ex-Dolphin has been a full participant throughout the summer but has missed games in all but one of his seven NFL seasons.
Agholor also has been one of the Patriots’ more impressive offensive players in camp, so keeping him around may have been the smarter move regardless. There’s reason to believe he can be more productive than he was during his disappointing debut season in New England, even if he does lose some snaps to Parker and, eventually, Thornton.
3. Thornton’s impending absence also opens the door for an on-the-bubble wideout to potentially snag a roster spot. In our latest 53-man roster projection, published Monday morning, we had preseason standout Lil’Jordan Humphrey making the cut as a big-bodied pass-catcher who’d contribute on special teams and might be able to provide depth at tight end, as well.
Kristian Wilkerson also has put together a solid camp, but the concussion he suffered during last week’s joint practices could unfortunately crush his roster hopes. With one preseason game remaining, we’d place Humphrey and Wilkerson a tier above minicamp darling Tre Nixon and two above Josh Hammond.
4. The Patriots will hope Thornton can overcome his preseason setback in a way N’Keal Harry couldn’t in 2019. Harry showed potential during his first NFL summer, but he missed the first half of his rookie season and never recovered.
It’ll be on Thornton to stay engaged in the meeting and film rooms while he recovers, and on New England’s more experienced wideouts to help him keep up. New England’s streamlined new offense should make this process a bit simpler for the 21-year-old than it was for Harry.
5. Fair or not, this injury won’t quell concerns about Thornton’s durability. He’s alarmingly skinny at 6-foot-2, 181 pounds, and the fact it took just two games and three receptions for him to break a bone is worrisome.
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