The Patriots looked as if they could use a boost Sunday. They will find out this week if Ben Watson can be that boost.
The tight end, who was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy in the offseason, can return this week. The Patriots have a roster exemption, as is standard with players returning from suspension, which means Watson can practice without counting toward the 53-man roster until he’s activated.
To play against Washington, Watson would have to be activated by 4 p.m. Saturday.
Whether or not the Patriots could use a tight end is not in question.
Whether or not the 38-year-old Watson has enough left in the tank to fill that role, and whether or not he’ll jump into the mix seamlessly after missing a month, are worthwhile discussions.
“We couldn’t have any contact with Ben from that whatever it was — that Sunday before the Pittsburgh game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “Fortunately, Ben has a lot of experience in our system and has been with us all through the spring and training camp, so hopefully he’ll be able to recall what he did and the things that are new. Coach [Nick] Caley, Coach [Josh] McDaniels will spend extra time with him to go over those with him to come up to speed on those.”
Watson, who retired after last season then un-retired to sign with the Patriots, spent the first six years of his career (2004-09) in New England. He was suspended in May for using testosterone, and said at the time that in early March, a doctor prescribed him Bio Identical Testosterone Cypionate to help Watson heal his body and mind after a long career in football.
Watson caught two passes for 24 yards during the preseason but was more active, and had a good rapport with Tom Brady, during spring and training camp practices.
“Training camp is a foundational time for all of our players,” McDaniels said Tuesday. “So, we try to get all of that stuff in in training camp and give them a good foundation for what our system is about. We’ve dealt with these types of situations before in the past with a few different players, and they use training camp and they get themselves ready to go.”
If that could carry over to the regular season now that Watson is eligible to return, it would at least add experience and consistency to a position group that’s not particularly deep. Watson knows the terminology and the system and has some understanding, even if it’s a little out of date, of what Brady wants.
Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo have combined for four catches for 77 yards through the first quarter of the season. Watson had 35 catches for 400 yards with two touchdowns last year for the Saints. He was an efficient and reliable target for Drew Brees, snagging 76.1 percent of his targets — while generating the second-best yards per target mark (8.7) of his career.
A similar performance would go a long way for the Patriots who, especially with Julian Edelman playing through a rib injury, could use an outlet for Brady who’s both a reliable target and able to help out with blocking.
“Ben’s a versatile guy, he’s a smart guy,” McDaniels said. “He’s certainly made a lot of plays in his career. Just gives an element of speed and experience at the tight end position. He’s been a productive guy, made plays under pressure.”
The Patriots were woeful on offense Sunday against the Bills, so Watson’s return could be timely.
With Washington and the two New York teams coming up, he can ease in before the schedule gets tough. Suspensions aren’t ideal but, for older players, they do reduce wear and tear.
The last two Patriots players who started seasons with four-game suspensions — Edelman in 2018 and Brady in 2016 — coincidentally or not, both finished those seasons with Super Bowl MVP awards.
. . .
The Patriots released receiver Cameron Meredith, who was on PUP, as part of a series of roster transactions.
Meredith, 27, signed a two-year deal in August. After a breakout season with the Bears in 2016, Meredith suffered a severe knee injury, including a torn ACL and other damage in the 2017 preseason that has hampered him ever since.
Meredith was placed on PUP before the start of the season and was never able to practice for the Patriots, though he was a regular presence in meetings at Gillette Stadium. By rule, the earliest he could have returned to practice would have been Week 6.
Because of the two-year nature of his deal, it seemed possible that 2019 could have been a kind of redshirt year for Meredith, with 2020 in mind, but that obviously did not pan out.
Like Demaryius Thomas, Meredith falls into the category of receivers the Patriots have recently taken chances on who haven’t ended up as contributors.
Along with Meredith, the Patriots also released offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch, who they’d signed Sept. 17. The team also released linebacker Scooby Wright from the practice squad.
After those moves, the Patriots have an open spot on the practice squad and one on the 53-man roster, though that’s expected to go to Watson.