FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes with the New England Patriots and around the NFL:
1. How many players does a team need to make it through a season? Consider that after the Patriots added four new players to their 53-man roster this week -- receiver Leonard Hankerson, defensive tackle Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle and running back Joey Iosefa -- they have now had 74 different players occupy a spot on the roster at some point over the season. That’s more roster churning than the norm for them. Last year at this time, the Patriots had 64 different players occupying a spot on the 53-man roster. In 2013, it was also 64 players at this juncture. Then it was 68 (2012), followed by 70 (2011) and 68 (2010).
2. One reason for the Patriots’ higher-than-normal total of players occupying spots on the 53-man roster is that the club has placed 17 different players on season-ending injured reserve this year. That is the second highest total in the NFL, behind the Ravens’ 18. Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome is widely regarded as one of the game’s better team builders, but at 4-9 the Ravens have lost too many close games and ultimately haven’t had the necessary depth to overcome their run of injuries.
3. Top power running back LeGarrette Blount, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve this past Wednesday (left hip), is one of the Patriots’ few notable free agents after the season. Even if the 29-year-old returns to the team in 2016, drafting or developing a younger power back (someone like Alabama’s Derrick Henry could fit the bill if available) still figures to be high on the team's priority list this offseason. The Patriots currently have only Dion Lewis (5-8, 195), James White (5-10, 205), versatile backup Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) and the unproven Iosefa under contract for 2016 at the running back position.
4. After entering the NFL as a 2014 first-round draft pick with injury questions, Patriots defensive tackle Dominique Easley has had his first two seasons end at almost the same time in early December by being placed on season-ending injured reserve (knee in 2014, thigh in 2015). One lingering question is how much Easley’s health issues are a result of size -- 6-foot-2 and 288 pounds is light for an NFL defensive lineman -- conditioning, or just bad luck. Easley, whose primary contributions came as an interior sub-rusher in passing situations, also missed one game apiece this season with hip and ankle injuries. In a Patriots culture where dependability is valued as much as ability -- both on and off the field -- Easley still remains a wild card in that area.
5. Third-year Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones, who opened the year on the physically unable to perform list (calf) before being placed on season-ending injured reserve in November, recently underwent surgery on his ankle. I was told it was Jones’ ankle, more than his calf injury that had required offseason surgery, which hindered him from returning off the PUP list in 2015. The ankle had been a lingering issue for Jones, who played 45.5 percent of the defensive snaps last season, that he had hoped would resolve itself with rest and rehabilitation.
6a. The Patriots view rookie Joey Iosefa, who they promoted from the practice squad on Saturday, as someone who could help at running back or fullback and has an element of toughness to his game. He’s listed at 6-foot and 245 pounds and he is more likely to run over a defender than race by him. Some in the Patriots’ media corps were discussing the Hawaii alum late last week, reflecting on another running back/fullback type who once came out of nowhere to help the Patriots out in a pinch back in 2005 -- Heath Evans (6-0, 250). Iosefa, who entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft pick of the Buccaneers, should factor into the special-teams mix as well, just like Evans.
6b. Why Iosefa over another practice squad running back, Montee Ball? Since Ball just arrived in town this past Tuesday, it seems safe to say Iosefa’s knowledge of the offense (he’d been on the practice squad since Oct. 21) gave him the edge for this week.
7. One of the notable NFL storylines this offseason will be how two teams with young quarterbacks -- Denver/Brock Osweiler and Washington/Kirk Cousins -- handle contract negotiations as both players are scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Both quarterbacks were selected in the 2012 draft and groomed as backups, but now that they are starting and having some level of success, their market value has risen from what it was in the offseason. Closer to home, the Patriots have quarterbacks Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo under contract through 2017. At that point, Brady will be 40 and Garoppolo -- assuming his development remains on an upward arc -- could be in a similar position as Osweiler and Cousins where his market value rises.
8. Did You Know: The Patriots’ opponent today, the Tennessee Titans, has had 11 different players catch touchdown passes this season, which breaks the franchise record of 10 that was set in 1961. That note comes courtesy of one of our favorites from the NFL’s public relations ranks, the Titans’ Jared Puffer. For context, the spread-it-around Patriots have had nine different players catch touchdowns this year.
9. One Patriots-based twist to keep in mind today as the Texans (6-7) visit the Colts (6-7) in a game of first-place teams in the AFC South is that New England will host the top team in the AFC South in the 2016 regular season. While the Colts have been reeling, they do have history on their side today. They have won all 13 home games against the Texans, who joined the NFL in 2002. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that is the longest active home winning streak against a single opponent.
10. One personnel executive familiar with free-agent running back Steven Jackson, who worked out for the Patriots this past Thursday, believes he’d be a perfect fit for them coming down the homestretch as they often like to ride bigger running backs when the weather gets cold and elements can become more of a factor. While there is varied opinion around the NFL about how much Jackson has left, surely one of the appealing aspects to coach Bill Belichick is Jackson's dependability and ball security come the playoffs, where one fumble can end a team’s season. Jackson has just four fumbles in his past six seasons. It wouldn’t have made much sense to sign Jackson after his workout, because he wouldn’t have been ready to play today on a quick turnaround. So, if the Patriots are going to make a move, I’d think it would happen early this week.