Patriots Mailbag: What Happens When Tyquan Thornton Returns?

Plus: Should Marcus Cannon start over Isaiah Wynn?

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October 7

As we count down the final days before we see the New England Patriots’ gorgeous red throwback uniforms back in action, let’s sift through some of your mailbag questions from Week 5.

@ThorntonsGoat
Is it safe to assume Cannon will be the starter over Wynn on Sunday?
Safe to assume? I wouldn’t go that far. But I do think that would be a smart move at this point.

Right tackle Isaiah Wynn now has struggled in three consecutive games — beyond the sacks and pressures allowed, his six penalties in those games are more than any other NFL player has committed all season — and I thought Marcus Cannon looked good when he replaced him in the second half of last week’s overtime loss to Green Bay.

Cannon is 34 and has appeared in just five games over the last three seasons, so he’s no sure thing, either. But he’s clearly impressed teammates and coaches since his return to New England last month, with both Bill Belichick and David Andrews saying he’ll be an asset to the team moving forward. The Patriots officially promoted Cannon to the 53-man roster from the practice squad on Wednesday, making him at worst the No. 3 tackle behind Wynn and Trent Brown.

We’ll find out Sunday whether he’s already leapfrogged Wynn and reclaimed the position he held from 2016 to 2019.

@CoachGrav
With the ILB issues do you see the patriots addressing this high in the draft? Possibly a big free agent offseason signing with all their cap space? Roquan Smith?

It’s a little too early to get deep into offseason projections, but it’s clear the Patriots’ plan for upgrading their linebacking corps has not worked out as intended.

The three primary figures in that effort, at least from my perspective, were Raekwon McMillan, Mack Wilson and Cameron McGrone. As I wrote earlier this week, McMillan opened the season as a starter but already has been reduced to playing only on special teams; Wilson had a brutal game against Baltimore and was essentially benched against Green Bay, and McGrone never lived up to his offseason hype and now is on the practice squad.

Among all NFL linebackers with at least 50 snaps played, McMillan and Wilson have the lowest and fourth-lowest Pro Football Focus grades, respectively. They’re also the two lowest-graded Patriots defenders by PFF.

These second-level issues have contributed to back-to-back poor performances in run defense. The Patriots allowed 188 rushing yards to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens and then 199 to the Packers. Four games in, they rank 31st in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ rush defense DVOA, with tough matchups against Detroit (fourth in rush offense DVOA) and Cleveland (third) up next on the schedule.

The Patriots’ decision not to draft a single linebacker already looks like a mistake, and they seemed to acknowledge their need for help at the position this week when they signed 32-year-old Jamie Collins to a practice squad contract and worked out a handful of other free agent ‘backers. It’s possible their current group settles in over the final three-quarters of the season, but if not, then yeah, improving there again will be a priority come spring.

It’s worth noting the Patriots currently are projected to have more than $55 million in available salary cap space this coming offseason, per Spotrac, more than all but two other NFL teams. So if they want to make a marquee veteran addition, they’ll have the resources to do so.

@swimlikefish1
Jack Jones full time starter?

I’m very interested to see how the Patriots construct their cornerback group if Jalen Mills (hamstring) is ready to return this week.

Mills has started every game he’s played in over the last two seasons, but with Jones impressing both against Green Bay in Mills’ absence and as a rotational player during the first three games, will New England now view the rookie as the more desirable starting option? Fellow starter Jonathan Jones also has outperformed Mills in coverage thus far, though Aaron Rodgers beat him on a few key completions last week.

Jonathan Jones and Mills both have slot experience, so the Patriots could bump either inside if they do choose to keep Jack Jones in the starting lineup. Myles Bryant has been their preferred slot option through the first four games, and though he hasn’t been the disaster many on Twitter have painted him as, he struggled against Randall Cobb on some pivotal third downs in Green Bay.

We’ll also see whether Jack Jones’ deficiencies as a run defender dissuade the Patriots from installing him as a full-time starter. New England requires its cornerbacks to be sound tacklers, and that’s a weakness in the undersized Jones’ skill set at this point.

@kase_cm
Are we gonna see more pony / 2 back sets? The RB group is a strength and we’re thin at TE

That would be an interesting offensive wrinkle and one we’ve hardly seen at all through four games. The Patriots used to sprinkle in “pony” sets (21 personnel with two tailbacks, rather than a tailback and a fullback) from time to time with players like James White and Rex Burkhead, and they offered intriguing mismatch potential.

This season, they’ve run exactly one play with two backs on the field: a goal-line touchdown against Pittsburgh that featured Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson as split backs. Since Harris and Stevenson both are more skilled as rushers than as pass-catchers, this might not be the most pony-friendly backfield, at least until third-down back Ty Montgomery returns (assuming he can do so this season).

Given the Patriots’ lack of depth at tight end, though, we could see them roll out some different looks if Jonnu Smith (ankle) misses time. Hunter Henry is the only other traditional tight end on their roster, with Lil’Jordan Humphrey playing a pseudo receiver/tight end role and Matt Sokol and Scotty Washington on the practice squad.

But Smith was upgraded to limited in Thursday’s practice, so there’s a chance he’ll be able to return this week.

@ChaneJ23
I don’t want this, but with Bournes usage and Thornton coming back.. odd man out? Would be a shame

First off, there’s no guarantee that Tyquan Thornton — whose 21-day injured reserve return window opened when he returned to practice Wednesday — will come back from IR and immediately become an impact player in the Patriots’ offense.

Even in his promising training camp, Thornton was no higher than fourth on the receiver depth chart, and he just missed 6 1/2 weeks of valuable practice time at a key stage of his NFL development. This still could wind up being a de facto redshirt year for the second-round pick, or a rookie season in which he makes only a modest impact.

But if Thornton does look ready to contribute when he returns to the 53-man roster, the Patriots will have some difficult decisions to make. There might not be room for DeVante Parker, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Humphrey and Thornton in their receiving corps, so one of those players could get the boot once the rookie is back to full health.

Would it be Humphrey, who’s had a large role as a multipositional hybrid? Or does Belichick value his run-blocking ability too much to remove him? Humphrey could prove more valuable in the coming weeks, too, if Smith’s injury sidelines him for a spell.

Or, as you mentioned, could this trigger a midseason Bourne trade? I’d be against that based on how productive he’s been when he’s on the field, but the Patriots simply have not given him much playing time. He still ranks last among New England wideouts in snaps played (70) by a wide margin, playing 36 fewer than Meyers despite the latter missing the last two games with a knee injury. Bourne is averaging 15.3 yards per touch this season, with nine of his 10 (nine catches, one carry) resulting in first downs.

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Thumbnail photo via David DelPoio/The Providence Journal via USA TODAY Sports Images
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