The New England Patriots hit the practice field on Tuesday to begin their preparations for a pivotal Week Twelve matchup with the conference-leading Tennessee Titans. At 7-4, the Pats have a chance to seize the top spot from Tennessee with a win, in conjunction with a Baltimore Ravens’ loss.
While the Pats enjoyed perfect attendance for their first practice of the week, the collective eyes of New England’s present media contingent were on three new players wearing numbers 19, 24 and 45, respectively.
It was eventually revealed that the fresh jerseys belonged to fifth-round rookie linebacker Cameron McGrone (no. 45) and sixth-round rookie safety Joshuah Bledsoe (no. 24) and punter Corliss Waitman (no. 19). Both McGrone and Bledsoe had been on the team’s Non-Football Injury list since prior to training camp; having suffered their respective injuries prior to being selected in this year’s 2021 NFL Draft. The team now has 21 days to activate either one or both players. Should they fail to do so, the player (or players) would revert to injured reserve and miss the remainder of the season.
Waitman, who had visited New England for a workout with the team on Thursday, November 11, was signed to the Patriots practice squad.
In light of McGrone’s and Bledsoe’s return (as well as Waitman’s arrival), here is a look at what it may potentially mean for the Patriots heading into the latter part of the 2021 season:
What It Means — Cameron McGrone
New England once again dipped into the Michigan defensive well with McGrone’s selection. The 6’1” 234-pound linebacker has some upside, and has the potential to be a three-down player in the MIKE role. McGrone played in only 19 games with 15 starts at Michigan, a relatively small sample size for scouting purposes. He finished his collegiate career with the Wolverines with 91 tackles, including 11 for loss, to go with four sacks and one forced fumble.
McGrone suffered a season-ending ACL injury versus Rutgers in November 2020. As a result, his draft stock plummeted. However, his toughness and impressive range clearly made him worth the investment for New England, even if he never plays a down for the Pats this season. During his post-draft press conference with the media, head coach Bill Belichick advised that the team remains unsure if McGrone will be ready this year, and are prepared for him to possibly be more of a 2022 consideration.
“We’re not really sure what the expectation of availability is for him [McGrone], but we’re certainly prepared to not have him available this year,” Belichick said. “There are no false expectations here. He should have a good recovery and be a good player. We’ll just have to see what the timing is on that.”
Should McGrone be able to suit up, he would add notable depth to one of the deepest corps of linebackers in the NFL, including Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower. Yet, the Patriots may have alternative needs for his would-be roster spot. It should be noted that veteran linebacker Jamie Collins, currently on injured reserve, will be eligible to return as soon as next weekend; just in time for the Patriots Monday night matchup with the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, New York. If McGrone is unable to return, the rookie would still benefit from the practice time as he prepares for 2022.
What It Means — Joshuah Bledsoe
The Patriots opened the sixth round by selecting Bledsoe with the 188th overall selection. Throughout his four years at Missouri, he started 40 of his 43 games. Bledsoe appeared as a box safety, free safety, and slot corner. Unfortunately, Bledsoe sustained a wrist injury in January, which has kept him sidelined until now.
As a result, Bledsoe projects as a versatile safety for the Patriots. His ideal fit would feature him in the D-gap/slot, in a big-nickel-heavy defensive scheme featuring man-to-man coverage assignments. Bledsoe could be an option as a third safety who subs in on late downs to play man coverage down closer to the line of scrimmage. While New England has a solid trio of safeties in Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips employed in their base defense, Bledsoe could add some depth to the position, if activated.
What It Means — Corliss Waitman
Waitman joined the league in 2020 as an undrafted rookie free agent by signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He spent 2021 training camp with the Las Vegas Raiders. He appeared in 38 games during his collegiate career at South Alabama. Waitman handled kickoff and holding duties, in addition to punting. He was a first-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection as a junior after averaging 45.24 yards per punt to set the school record. During his tenure with the South Alabama Jaguars, Waitman booted 58 punts which were downed inside the 20-yard line.
Though the Patriots employ one of the best punters in the NFL, in All-Pro Jake Bailey, there may be a valid reason for the team keeping their options open at the position. The 24-year-old Stanford product has been a recent addition to New England’s injury report with a right knee ailment. If Bailey continues to be hampered, Waitman could provide some much-needed workload alleviation during practices, or serve as a possible roster elevation for game day.