7 New England Patriots Who Must Step Up After Key Injuries

Mike Dussault@PatsPropagandaSenior Analyst IOctober 18, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 12:  Running back Chris Ivory #33 of the New York Jets carries the ball as he is hit by outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots in the second quarter at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

No NFL team has been hit harder by injuries this season than the New England Patriots, and the trend continued this past weekend against the New Orleans Saints, when Jerod Mayo, Danny Amendola, Dan Connolly and Aqib Talib all left the game and did not return.

Mayo was put on IR with a torn pectoral muscle on Wednesday, ending his season and putting the Pats atop a list they would prefer to avoid:

With Jerod Mayo going on IR, Patriots now have $20.6M in cap dollars on IR, most in the NFL by over $4M.

— Brian McIntyre (@brian_mcintyre) October 16, 2013

Connolly returned to practice on Thursday, but Talib and Amendola have missed both practices this week, making it unlikely either will be available when the Pats travel to New York to take on the Jets this Sunday.

Add Mayo, Talib and Amendola to the already significant list of those lost like Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Shane Vereen and it seems the 2013 Patriots are fighting a battle of injury attrition never seen before. It's not just the number of players—it's the quality, as the Pats are now likely to face the Jets without two defensive captains and arguably their season MVP thus far in Talib.

Let's take a look at who will now have to step up in their place and what the outlook is for their performance.

August 24, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; New England Patriots center Ryan Wendell (62), guard Dan Connolly (63) and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon (61) during the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klem
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Injury: Dan Connolly - Concussion

Who Must Step Up: Marcus Cannon

Dan Connolly picked up his 2013 season where he left off in 2012, battling injuries and being the weak link along the Pats line. Connolly rated out a .2 overall by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) in 2012 and is currently minus-7.2 in 2013.

Despite his return to practice on Thursday, it still seems possible Marcus Cannon could get the start this weekend.

Cannon has long intrigued Patriots pundits with his potential as a guard. He served primarily as the swing backup tackle in 2012 and did a solid job. Given his extraordinary size at 6'5", 358 pounds and rare quickness and agility, many wondered if he was a better fit inside.

When he began taking reps at guard in training camp in place of Connolly as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, it seemed like the move had officially been made. But once Connolly returned, he settled back in as the starting right guard, and Cannon went back to being the swing tackle.

When Connolly went down with a concussion against the Saints, Cannon returned to guard, and his performance was ugly, garnering a team-worst minus-4.4 from PFF. There's no question he's an interesting player who could have long-term potential inside, but he left a lot to be desired in his first significant game action there.  

Cannon will need to take some big steps this weekend if he's starting in place of Connolly. If he lives up to his potential, Connolly might not get his starting job back.

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 13:   Danny Amendola #80 of the New England Patriots is hit by  Rafael Bush #25 and  Keyunta Dawson #55 of the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium on October 13, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.The New England Patriots defeated the
Elsa/Getty Images

Injury: Danny Amendola - Concussion

Who Must Step Up (again): Julian Edelman

The Patriots have already managed to make it three games without Danny Amendola this season, so it won't be a major shock to be without him this weekend. Amendola was slowly being worked back into action after returning in a limited basis against the Bengals.

He narrowly missed a connection with Tom Brady that might've been a long touchdown against the Saints prior to taking a vicious hit that gave him a concussion, but otherwise, he had an unremarkable day with two catches for zero yards.

Edelman has already proven he can ably replace Amendola, but Amendola regained his top slot receiver status in the Saints game, playing more snaps than Edelman despite missing a significant amount of time in the second half.

It's hard to speculate when Amendola might be able to return to action. Edelman led the NFL in receptions when Amendola was out the first time, so he should be fine filling in again.

The question might be whether or not Edelman is actually the better long-term slot receiver for the Pats. He's had injury issues of his own in previous seasons but has stayed healthy through six games this season.

Still, the Pats are a better team with Amendola in the lineup, and who knows if or when he'll be able to string together a set of healthy and productive games. The Pats might be wise to extend Julian Edelman now as insurance.

Oct 13, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Jerod Mayo (right) tackles New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (left) during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Injury: Jerod Mayo - Torn Pectoral

Who Must Step Up: Dane Fletcher, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins

Losing Vince Wilfork for the season and Tommy Kelly for a still undetermined time frame were huge blows to the Patriots front seven. Adding Jerod Mayo to season-ending IR was the awful injury icing on the cake. 

No other linebacker on the Patriots roster is as versatile as Mayo, and replacing him will have to be a group effort. Dont'a Hightower is likely to take over as the leader of the Pats defensive huddle and see the biggest spike in playtime in Mayo's absence.

A first-round pick in 2012, Hightower is a bigger and more physical player than Mayo but lacks his speed and quickness in coverage. Can Hightower fill in ably for Mayo on passing downs? That's the biggest question facing the Pats and will determine how big of a drop-off there is.

But perhaps Dane Fletcher can help in that department. Fletcher has played multiple spots on defense since making the team as an undrafted free agent in 2010. He missed 2012 with an ACL tear but showed promise as a middle linebacker in 2011.

Fletcher is the best coverage linebacker on the roster after Mayo but has limited experience playing the Will spot in the base defense. He saw action against the Saints when Mayo went down, leading us to speculate he could join Hightower and Spikes in the base defense. Or perhaps they'll use him situationally in passing situations—a role he played well in 2010 and 2011, especially spying running backs.

The dark horse is rookie Jamie Collins, who has played mostly strong-side linebacker and in coverage on clear passing situations this year. He has only seen action on 52 defensive snaps this year.

It's unclear how Collins would fit into the base defense. Could he start at Mayo's Will spot and allow Hightower (Sam) and Brandon Spikes (Mike) to stay at their usual spots? Or could he play at the Sam spot, the one he's most experienced at, while Hightower shifts to the weak side?

What seems clear is that Collins' role on passing downs is likely to increase. He and Fletcher move the best in space, but Hightower is the most all-around talented linebacker left. 

There's no easy answer to replacing Mayo. It will be a team effort and likely a game-plan specific one.

Sep 29, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib (31) breaks up a pass in the end zone intended for Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (84) in the final seconds in the fourth quarter at the Georgia Dome. The Patriots won 3
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Injury: Aqib Talib - Hip

Who Must Step Up: Logan Ryan and/or Duron Harmon

Aqib Talib had been putting together one of the best cornerback seasons in the NFL before going down with a hip injury against the Saints. Talib is on a one-year "prove it" deal with the Pats and had been proving it both on the field and off it.

Now, with Talib missing back-to-back practices, it appears his stellar season has been derailed, at least temporarily. This hip issue is one that bothered Talib last season, causing him to miss time in 2012, including most of the AFC Championship against the Ravens.

The immediate fix is that Kyle Arrington will shift back outside on early downs to replace Talib, with rookie Logan Ryan coming on as the outside corner in sub-packages and Arrington shifting back inside to the slot. This would also elevate Marquice Cole into a potential dimeback role.

Another option could be Devin McCourty dropping back down to corner, thus thrusting rookie Duron Harmon into a starting spot at safety next to Steve Gregory. That's not exactly a duo that inspires confidence on the back end.

The Patriots are lucky they don't have to face an elite receiving weapon like they did in their three-game stretch against Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Jimmy Graham. Neither the Jets, Dolphins or Steelers have one of those kind of threats.

The best thing might be to give Talib a break through the bye week and allow him four weeks to get healthy for the stretch run. There's no question his presence will be missed, but at 5-1, the Patriots have some flexibility.

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 16:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots goes through plays with his players against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the game at Gillette Stadium on August 16, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerh
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Next Man Up

Bill Belichick always builds his team with depth in mind. His penchant for trading back in the draft and leaning toward quantity over quality tends to pay off in situations like this. Not even the Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi injuries of 2008 could completely derail the team.

The Pats have similar depth built into their roster now, with solid veterans and high-round picks ready to step in for the players who might miss time.

No one will ever feel sorry for the big, bad Patriots, including themselves. The mantra of "next man up" has always been preached in New England, and this season might be the biggest test of it in Bill Belichick's tenure.

Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist and also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.  

All stats courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).