FOXBOROUGH — With first place in the AFC East on the line Sunday against the suddenly resurgent New York Jets, the Patriots might have the services of three players who collectively have yet to play one down this season.
Receiver Brandon LaFell, defensive lineman Chris Jones, and linebacker Dane Fletcher all started the season on the physically unable to perform list. Per NFL rules, anyone starting the regular season on the PUP list can’t play or practice until Week 7. Because the Patriots already have had their bye week, it would mean the trio would miss, at minimum, the first five games, which they have.
Now that they’re eligible to practice and play, the Patriots must decide if LaFell, Jones, and Fletcher are healthy enough to contribute soon, because teams have a 21-day window to move a player from the PUP list to the active roster once the player returns to practice.
The Patriots (5-0) will hit the practice field on Wednesday as they prepare to face the Jets (4-1) on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
Will the Patriots start the clock?
“Yeah, we probably will,” Bill Belichick said on Tuesday. “We’ll talk about that a little bit later on today when we get with the trainers and see how the workouts went today and so forth. It’s definitely something that we’ll be talking about now with players that are in that category.
“We haven’t made a final decision on that, but those are definitely possibilities for all three guys.”
LaFell had offseason foot surgery, while Jones has dealt with a calf injury and Fletcher tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the 2014 season finale, when he was playing with the Buccaneers.
All three players have been seen with their teammates the past few weeks getting some conditioning work in before practice starts, and LaFell accompanied the Patriots on their past two road games, at Dallas and then Indianapolis.
LaFell wasn’t spotted in the locker room on Tuesday, but both Jones and Fletcher spoke with the Globe. Neither expressed knowledge of when they might return to practice, or if the clock will start with Wednesday’s workout.
“I’m at the point where whatever the coaches tell me to do, I’m ready to go do it,” said Fletcher, who was with the Patriots from 2010-13 before joining the Buccaneers last season. He’s appeared in 38 games for the Patriots — he sat out 2012 with another ACL injury — including six starts, and has been credited with four sacks, an interception, and two fumble recoveries.
Returning from an ACL tear isn’t easy, and Fletcher knows he has a lot of ground to make up.
“I’m pretty far behind. I missed training camp, I’ve missed this much of the season,” he said. “The only way to get good is to do it, and so now I’m excited to hopefully get in and do it. I’ve been waiting for this for over nine months now.”
Jones is also eager, and doing what he can to make the transition easier when it’s time to put the pads back on and he’s once again competing for playing time.
“Like I’ve done every week, I’ve prepared to play. I’m doing my research on the Jets, just like I would do if I was to play this week, or any week,” Jones said. “That’s what I’ve been doing this whole time. I’m just mentally preparing myself for whatever comes.”
A defensive tackle, Jones is in his third season with the Patriots, and had 25 starts (playoffs included) over his first two seasons. He has nine career sacks.
If he’s healthy enough to play this week, Jones will make his season debut against the Jets, a team he has a history with during his brief NFL career. He was penalized for pushing a teammate into the Jets’ offensive formation on an overtime field goal attempt two seasons ago, a 56-yard try that was missed. Given a second chance and a 5-yard bump, the Jets made the shorter kick and won the game.
The next season, this time at Gillette Stadium, Jones blocked a 58-yard field goal attempt on the last play of the game, preserving a 27-25 Patriots win over the Jets.
Perhaps he’ll get another opportunity Sunday.
“The competitor in me wants to get back and get going. I feel great right now,” Jones said. “I’m getting ready mentally, and when it gets time to practice it will be a different type of physical work than I’ve been used to. I can’t wait for it.”
The return of LaFell would provide the league’s second-ranked passing offense with yet another playmaker. Last year, in his first season with the Patriots, LaFell caught 74 passes for 953 yards and seven touchdowns, then caught two touchdowns in the playoffs, including one in Super Bowl XLIX. At 6 feet 3 inches and with decent speed, LaFell could provide the downfield threat that’s been consistently lacking.
Getting LaFell back would come at a fortuitous time because the Jets, led by former Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis, have an impressive defense. They’re ranked first in yards allowed, first in points allowed, second against the run, and second against the pass.