A field goal’s worth of thoughts on the Patriots . . .
Abrupt endings arrive more often in the NFL than in other sports. This is not news, of course. The sport’s intrinsic violence abbreviates careers, and when a singularly brutal injury doesn’t end them, the grind often does. It’s part of the bargain for players, and to a far lesser extent fans, too. You never know when the career of a favorite player or prospect will end. But you always know it can, at any moment.
The saga of Malcolm Mitchell — who went from potential future cornerstone contributing in the present to an ex-Patriot in basically one season — is not a new one in franchise lore. If you’re a relative old-timer, you remember Clayton Weishuhn and Hart Lee Dykes and their fellow unlucky what-might-have-beens.
Mitchell, a third-year wide receiver with a relentless history of knee problems, was waived by the Patriots Monday, ending his tenure. This did not come as a surprise. He missed all of last season with his chronic knee woes — woes that were already an issue when he entered the league, which is why a player of his ideal dimensions and ability fell to the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
He struggled to get on the field during training camp. There had been reports for weeks that the Patriots were trying to trade him. They need players they can count on to actually play. It’s cold and callous, but it is not a new reality. It’s how the NFL meat grinder functions.
But the truth of the situation does not make it easier to bear. This stinks. In a just world, Mitchell would have been a productive and admired Patriot for years. He already had proven more than capable. In 2016, he contributed 32 catches for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns in 14 games. He was the best receiver drafted by the Patriots since they landed Deion Branch and David Givens in 2002.
He proved his toughness by coming back from a gruesome dislocated elbow, and he proved his trustworthiness by catching six Tom Brady passes in the epic comeback in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons, including five in the fourth quarter. Young receivers rarely connect with Brady so early. He must have been special to have Brady’s faith again and again under those circumstances.
We never could have imagined it then, but sadly, the last catch he would make as a Patriot came in that Super Bowl. Mitchell’s fifth catch of the fourth quarter came with 2 minutes and 34 seconds left and the Patriots still trailing by 8. It was good for 11 yards, and occurred on the play before Julian Edelman’s improbable 23-yard catch in traffic that he corralled just before it hit the turf.
Mitchell, a gregarious guy who became a staple in the community in his short time here, played just 16 games total as a Patriot. But he made his mark. It’s just too bad he couldn’t have stayed a little longer.
What to make of the receiving corps?
I’ll admit it. I have no idea what to make of the Patriots receiving corps, at least during Edelman’s four-game suspension. Chris Hogan has been a tremendous asset in his two seasons here, but he’s better as a secondary option. Cordarrelle Patterson is putting on a show in camp, but that’s what he does; he has been an enigma in his career when the games count.
Phillip Dorsett has a first-round pedigree, by all accounts works hard, and has a year in the system, but will that translate to more production and reliability? Eric Decker is 31 and averaged a little over 10 yards a catch last year; I’m not sure how much he has left.
Then there’s Kenny Britt, who has had a subtly productive career (six seasons of at least 589 yards, a 1,000-yard season in ’16) but has never been the most reliable player. Had Mitchell been able to play, he might have been Brady’s most relied-upon option early in the season.
I know this much: Rob Gronkowski had better stay healthy, and Edelman had better shake the rust off in a hurry when he gets back.
Watching for a sleeper
Maybe receiver is where a sleeper emerges. Rookie Braxton Berrios and Riley McCarron have drawn some notice in camp, though in Berrios’s case it would be a surprise if he seizes the slot receiver role right away. Even Edelman and Troy Brown needed a couple of seasons to master the role.
But this much is certain: There will be a couple of players at different positions who come out of nowhere and climb the depth chart to be significant contributors. Trying to figure out who they might be will be the primary fun of the exhibition opener Thursday night.
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com.