Despite the fact that the trade deadline is in the rear-view mirror, it isn't too late for the Patriots to get a boost from some unexpected places. Here are six players who were relatively under-the-radar — or off it completely — at the start of the season, but because of personnel, health and matchup potential have a real chance of becoming contributors down the stretch.
Wide receiver Philip Dorsett: Dorsett, who was acquired in the Jacoby Brissett deal just prior to the start of the regular season, has played in all eight games to this point, but has just four catches (on eight targets) for 85 yards. In terms of overall usage, his high point came in the Week 2 win over the Saints, when he finished with a season-high 32 snaps and one catch for seven yards. The Patriots are a week-to-week, game-plan offense, and so you could argue New England hasn’t found the right matchup yet for Dorsett. However, with Chris Hogan showing up in a sling after the win over the Chargers (and reportedly a candidate to sit another week), this week against the Broncos could be a big one for Dorsett. "Phillip has gotten better every week, we've expanded his role and scope and things that he's learning and areas that he's responsible for each week," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. "He's a smart kid. He works hard. (He's) making progress."
Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell: He had a good rookie season in 2016, but lingering knee issues have sidelined him to this point in the 2017 season. According to a recent report from Mike Reiss of ESPN, Mitchell — who was placed on injured reserve at the start of the regular season — has “recently started running again,” which would lead you to believe that his potential return wouldn’t exactly be right around the corner. It’s also worth noting that Mitchell hasn’t started practicing yet. Once he does, the 21-day clock starts on his potential return. “We’ll have to see how it goes,” Belichick said in late October when asked about a potential return this year for Mitchell. “There’s still a lot of football left. Guys that are eligible to come back – I mean, that could potentially be eligible to come back or working hard to trying to get better – they’re improving. So we’ll just see where all that takes us. I don’t know.” (One thought: If Mitchell is indeed done for the season and Hogan’s injury persists, that could open up more of an opportunity for Dorsett.)
Offensive lineman Andrew Jelks: The rookie out of Vanderbilt, who was placed on the Reserve NFI list in September with an undisclosed illness started practicing on Tuesday. Now, there's three-week window in terms of deciding what to do with him; he could be activated, placed on IR which would mean he’d be done for the year, or he’d be released. The 6-foot-6, 307-pounder was signed as a rookie free agent in May out of Vandy. He played in played in 24 games with 21 starts at Vanderbilt over five seasons, but missed out on the 2015 and 2016 seasons because of leg and knee injuries. He's missed two full years, and so expectations should be modest. But for what's it's worth, I spoke with a league source a couple of weeks ago, and they expressed optimism he could be a contributor to the Patriots in 2017.
Linebacker David Harris: Harris saw a sizable bump in playing time the week before the bye, and with Dont'a Hightower now officially out for the year, figures to see more action over the second half of the year. Acknowledged as a smart and savvy veteran by just about everyone on the defensive side of the ball, Harris doesn’t run as well as he used to -- which means he's a liability when it comes to coverage and other third-down situations -- but he is still capable of providing plenty of thump against the run. (If Shea McClellin would have made it back, the Patriots could have done some pairing with the duo, with Harris working on first- and second-downs and McClellin in a coverage role.)
Cornerback Eric Rowe: Rowe has spent the better part of the last month-plus limping around the locker room with a groin injury. As a result, the Patriots have had to lean on their depth at the position, and have gotten some good performances from the likes of Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones. But the return of Rowe would give that positional grouping some additional depth, and allow the Bademosi and Jones to return to more of a special teams role. (Part of that will also depend on the health of Stephon Gilmore. If Rowe and Gilmore are able to get back to 100 percent, and Gilmore can regain the form he flashed in the win over Tampa Bay earlier in the season, New England would have some much needed depth at the corner spot for the stretch run and into the postseason.)
Defensive lineman Vincent Valentine: The Nebraska product went on injured reserve at the start of the regular season with a knee issue, and with Mitchell, is one of two possibilities to return. The 6-foot-3, 320-pounder, who played in 13 games last season, eventually developed into a nice complementary piece next to the likes of Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. However, the Patriots may have tipped their hand here, as the Tuesday acquisition of Ricky Jean-Francois may be a way to guard against the potential loss of Valentine for the remainder of the season.