The New England Patriots, despite a slew of injuries throughout the 2017 season, still came within a few plays of winning Super Bowl XLII. Though the Patriots had defied the odds and come so close to a miracle finish in the end, last year began as a season marred by injury. In what would become a disturbing trend, significant contributors to both the offense and defense started falling like dominoes. First, a promising second-year receiver was placed on IR during the preseason. Quickly thereafter, their number-one wideout went down, soon to be followed by the loss of their starting right tackle and a Pro-Bowl middle linebacker. Over the course of 2017, injury after injury racked up, with over ten players missing at least half the season and seven missing the entire year. As the Patriots’ 2018 training camp is nearing kickoff, the vast majority of those players are set to return.
Julian Edelman, Wide Receiver:
Tom Brady’s favorite wide receiver was lost for the 2017 campaign when he tore an ACL in New England’s week-three preseason game. Now looking fully recovered, the 32-year old receiver was all set to prove he still has something left in the tank for 2018. Unfortunately a four-game suspension for PED use will postpone his return to action, as Edelman won’t suit up until a week five matchup with the Colts. A gritty, clutch playmaker over the middle, Julian’s return, albeit delayed, will undoubtedly be a boon for Brady and co. From 2014-16, Edelman averaged over 89 receptions and 956 receiving yards a season.
Marcus Cannon, Offensive Tackle:
Cannon, a former All-Pro right tackle in 2016, went down for the year with an ankle injury in week eight. LaAdrian Waddle was able to step in for Marcus and played admirably, but in 2018, the Patriots badly need the return of a healthy Cannon. Dealing with the free-agent loss of Nate Solder at left tackle, New England hopes Marcus can come back and re-solidify the right, so they can focus on the battle at Brady’s blind-side. Though Cannon missed OTA’s, he is expected to be ready come training camp. Now three years into a five-year, $32.5 million extension he signed in 2016, we’ll see if Marcus can return to his form from two seasons ago.
Derek Rivers, Defensive End:
The Patriots didn’t select a defensive end in the 2018 draft, and that should be good news for Derek Rivers. New England’s top pick from 2017 missed all of his rookie year after suffering a torn-ACL in August. Highly touted for his production and physical gifts at Youngstown State University, Rivers was expected to provide a major boost to the Pat’s pass-rush last season. Instead, he will enter 2018 vying for a part-time role on passing-downs, likely to fall behind free-agent addition Adrian Clayborn and holdover Deatrich Wise on the depth chart opposite Trey Flowers. If the ACL-injury hasn’t robbed him of his first-step, Rivers could be in for a big role as the season moves on.
Very impressed with Derek Rivers' explosiveness. Elite first step and does a nice job of converting speed into power. pic.twitter.com/0ChbaGKK72
— Alex Reno (@alex_reno) February 15, 2017
Harvey Langi, Linebacker:
Another rookie lost for the majority of 2017, Langi was placed on the non-football injury list after being involved in a serious car accident alongside his wife in October. Now healthy, the undrafted free-agent out of BYU can provide New England with a valuable chess-piece that can be moved all over the field. A prototypical hybrid linebacker/edge rusher with unique versatility (also lined up at running back in college), the Patriots gave Langi the highest guaranteed contract out of all 2017 undrafted rookies. Cleared to return to football activities, Harvey is expected to make the 53-man roster and should contribute early on special-teams.
Donta Hightower, Linebacker:
The loss of the Patriots’ defensive leader was clearly on display in Super Bowl XLII, as the Eagles were able to move the ball at will against New England. The former two-time All-Pro had been placed on Injured Reserve in week eight with a torn pectoral muscle. Without their stalwart in the middle, the Pats defense couldn’t beg their way to a stop, and the result was one of the worst defensive performances in Super Bowl history.
In 2018, the defense will be instantly upgraded with the return of Hightower, who appears to be ahead of schedule in his recovery. Speaking to reporters in May, Dont’a discussed his progress; “… I don’t have any numbers, percentages — none of that. I just know that I feel great right now. I’m moving around. I’m not having any problems.” Hightower said. “I mean, I won’t know how I really feel until we get pads on. I mean, 7-on-7 is for receivers and DBs, and that’s not my thing. So I won’t know until I get the pads on.” With the ability to rush from the edge and line up in the middle, Hightower’s return will bring some much-needed toughness and versatility back to New England’s D.
Malcolm Mitchell, Wide Receiver:
A fourth-round draft pick out of Georgia, Mitchell showed flashes as a rookie in 2016 with 32 catches, 401 yards and four touchdowns. He appeared to be on his way to becoming an integral part of the offense with six receptions for 70 yards in New England’s come-from-behind Super Bowl LI win over Atlanta. Unfortunately, Malcolm wound up spending all of 2017 on Injured Reserve with a knee injury.
So far through this offseason, Mitchell has still been sidelined with a lingering issue in the same knee. It’s unclear if he’ll be ready for training camp. If he does return, he’ll need to prove he can stay healthy in order to secure a spot amongst a crowded receiver depth-chart. He can firmly be considered a roster-bubble player in 2018.
Nate Ebner, Defensive Back:
A former Olympian with the U.S. Rugby team, the Patriots’ special-teams ace suffered a season-ending knee injury last season while running the ball on a fake punt in week 12. 100 percent recovered, New England re-signed Ebner to a two-year contract in March. He will return to his role as a special teams stand-out, where he was leading the unit with eight tackles prior to the injury. One of the better special-teamers in the league.
Cyrus Jones, Cornerback:
A 2017 preseason ACL-tear ruined Jones’ second season in the NFL. After a disastrous rookie campaign in 2016, Jones had steadily improved as a punt-returner before going down with the injury. Entering training camp, the former Alabama alum now faces a make-or-break year in 2018. With no player on the Pats’ roster yet locked into the punt-return role, Jones has a clear path to a job, but will have to show improved consistency and a major decrease in mental mistakes. A bubble player with the chance at earning an impact role.