FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots are in a dizzying late-season stretch in which they face one of the league’s elite receivers in each of their final seven games.
Next on the itinerary is Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins, a guy the Patriots are familiar with from their frequent matchups with his former team, the Texans, and a player Bill Belichick has supreme respect for, even comparing him to a Hall of Famer.
“He’s got tremendous ball skills. He catches everything, has great hands, and he’s long, so he’s never covered. Even if he’s covered, there’s a place where the ball can be that he can get it and still make the catch,” Belichick said. “Great coordination on the sidelines, and he doesn’t really look it, but he’s a strong kid in terms of creating separation on routes, yards after contact, tough yards like around the goal line or that extra yard for a first down.”
Hopkins has been on a torrid pace since returning from a six-game ban for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Since making his first appearance in Week 7, Hopkins is tied for second in the league with 49 receptions and is fifth in receiving yards (574). Las Vegas’s Davante Adams, whom the Patriots face Dec. 18, tops both lists (50, 762).
Hopkins, who leads the Cardinals in receiving yards and is second in catches, is a sleek 6 feet 1 inch, 212 pounds with exceptionally long arms and gigantic mitts — think Hamburger Helper hands with the correct amount of digits.
“He’s a very smart football player, very savvy. But his ball skills are at the very elite level with guys that I’ve seen in this league,” said Belichick. “He’s up there with whoever the top guys are, the Cris Carters of the world and guys like that. He’s every bit as good as anybody I’ve ever coached against.”
The Patriots have faced Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson (nine catches, 139 yards) and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs (7, 92) the last two weeks. After Hopkins and Adams, New England will square off against Cincinnati (Ja’Marr Chase), Miami (Tyreek Hill), and Buffalo (Diggs).
“You’ve just got to compete,” safety Devin McCourty said Thursday about the gauntlet. “We’ve got that until the season’s over. There’s no weeks where we’re going to come in and say like, ‘You know, this guy’s just OK,’ for the rest of the season. We’ve got all really good wide receiver groups. So, you’ve got to enjoy [it], go out there and compete and match up against these guys. They’re good for a reason. So, you know, I think game plan-wise, we’ve got to be locked in on what we need to do and how we need to play against certain receivers … I think everyone needs to come out and play their best ball and you know, it’s that time of the year where if we don’t do that as a secondary, it’s probably going to be pretty hard to win.”
New England’s offense faces the prospect of being severely shorthanded for Monday night’s game, with four key players missing Thursday’s full-pads practice.
Tackles Trent Brown (illness) and Isaiah Wynn (foot), receiver Jakobi Meyers (concussion), and running back Damien Harris (thigh) were not spotted during the media window.
Meyers suffered the head injury on a late catch against the Bills Dec. 1, and Brown battled through the illness in the Buffalo game. Wynn and Harris were inactive against the Bills.
Injuries have hurt New England’s ability to maintain consistency along the offensive line. The team has had to field six different combinations over the last seven games. By contrast, the same combination over the first six games: Brown (left tackle), Cole Strange (left guard), David Andrews (center), Mike Onwenu (right guard), Wynn (right tackle).
No Jakobi Meyers, Damien Harris, Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, Jalen Mills, or Garrett Gilbert at Thursday’s full pads #Patriots practice. First injury report comes out around 4 p.m. pic.twitter.com/LBNP7AlKMl— Jim McBride (@globejimmcbride) December 8, 2022
Only Strange and Onwenu have started every game.
“The availability has been inconsistent, so we’ll see what that looks like, even on a daily basis,” said Belichick. “We’ve got situations where some of those players have played but not practiced. So, it is what it is, we’ll just take it day by day.”
Cornerback Jalen Mills (groin), who missed the Bills game, was the lone defensive player who missed practice.
Additionally, practice squad quarterback Garrett Gilbert was not on hand.
Toughing it out
Logan Mankins, long known for his lumberjack toughness, recently revealed on the “Pats from the Past” podcast that he played the 2011 season with a torn ACL.
Playing through that injury is feat in and of itself, but consider the left guard earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors and helped the Patriots to a 15-4 record and a Super Bowl berth. The only game he missed was the regular-season finale, when most starters rested.
“My dad always said, ‘If you can go to work, you go to work.’ He always joked, ‘Just tape [it] and [take] aspirin and you’ll be all right,’ ‘’ said Mankins, who acknowledged that he didn’t want to sit after recently signing a six-year, $51 million deal that at the time was the richest in the league for a guard. “But it was fine. It hurt for a while and then it went away. I rarely noticed it as the season went on.”
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.