With no Patriots on injury report, inactive players come into focus

Highlighting some hot topics with the New England Patriots in the form of a mailbag:

Charlie, Super Bowl LII will be the first game this season that the Patriots won't have any players inactive because of injury, as everyone was removed from the injury report Friday. That should make the decisions on the 46-man roster fairly clear-cut. This is what I would project:

  • DT Alan Branch: After injuring his knee Dec. 11 against Miami, he has yet to play again, with Ricky Jean Francois getting the nod over him, even as Branch returned to full health.

  • WR Kenny Britt: Signed to a two-year deal through 2018, he'll have a better chance to emerge next season with a full offseason in the system; he has been inactive the past five games.

  • OL Cole Croston: The undrafted free agent from Iowa has been the eighth of eight linemen all season, and the team will have its usual seven linemen active on game day.

  • RB Mike Gillislee: He opened the season No. 1 on the depth chart before Dion Lewis took over Oct. 15 against the Jets and never gave back the job. Gillislee's lack of contributions on top special-teams units have hurt his case for a spot.

  • LB David Harris: Coach Bill Belichick has raved about his professionalism all season, but Harris hasn't played in each of the past four games.

  • TE Jacob Hollister: The undrafted free agent from Wyoming was inactive in the AFC Championship Game, as he was the player affected most by the overall health of the roster improving.

  • PR Bernard Reedy: He was signed to a deal through 2018 when he returned to the club on Jan. 17, so his chance to break through will come next year.

Ryan, I might reframe the context of the question because Schiano wouldn't have to interview for a job with the Patriots. He is so close with Belichick that I believe he could be hired tomorrow if he told Belichick he was interested in joining his staff in a similar type of role that Belichick had under Bill Parcells in 1996 (assistant head coach working with a specific position). That could always happen, but at this point, I'm not sure it has reached that level.

Eli, the Eagles' top three receivers of Alshon Jeffery (6-foot-3, 216 pounds), Torrey Smith (6-0, 205) and Nelson Agholor (6-0, 198) could be the key to the game, in terms of their ability to make plays in competitive catch situations against Stephon Gilmore (6-1, 190), Malcolm Butler (5-11, 190) and Eric Rowe (6-1, 205). I think the Patriots can run with them, although Smith, in particular, can fly. On paper, I don't see a major advantage either way, so I think it's just going to come down to which side makes the plays. The Patriots' corners have shown they can do that. The Eagles' receivers have shown they can do that. It's part of what makes this a compelling matchup.

Stephen, Butler was asked this week if he'd be interested in a return to the Patriots and he left the door open. So I view it as a situation where the open market probably will dictate where Butler winds up -- if another team offers the best deal, he'll probably be playing elsewhere next season. It's hard to project what type of deal that might be. Last year, when Butler was approaching his restricted free-agent offseason, the Patriots had shown a willingness to extend his contract, but the sides couldn't come to an agreement. So the club envisioned a future with Butler, which I think is important, and the context is that they just couldn't agree on price. Now the dynamics change because Butler can explore the open market with no restrictions, and that can be a great mediator of sorts to let him know what he's worth and if whatever the Patriots would offer is close to his market value.

Jim, my feeling is that this is Dion Lewis' job, with James White the reliable passing back, and those two should see the majority of the work. Rex Burkhead could be called upon in the "pony" grouping when two running backs are on the field together, and then integrated into the mix occasionally, with potential goal-line considerations depending on how the game unfolds. While the team has obvious confidence in Burkhead, Lewis and White have played the majority of snaps down the stretch and it's hard for me to see the team going away from them in a major shift in this game.

Brendan, this is a great question and it provides an opportunity to pass along some insight on how the Patriots view the Eagles. Unlike some other clubs, the Patriots have noted that the Eagles build their roster similarly in terms of devoting some significant spots to special-teams-only players, so it's going to be a challenge to match what they do. Captain Matthew Slater pointed out that Kamu Grugier-Hill -- a 2016 sixth-round pick of the Patriots -- is one of their core players. Also, the Eagles gave the Patriots' special teams some trouble the last time the teams met, as their coach, Dave Fipp, is widely respected. From the big-picture perspective, one of the things that covering Belichick's teams has opened my eyes to over the years is viewing the game through the three-phase prism, with special teams a big part of it. The Patriots have had a good season on special teams, ranking third in Rick Gosselin's annual rankings. The Eagles were 13th.

Scott, my view on that is that it's more of a friendship thing for Belichick, as he's close with Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, and the timing worked because most of the work is done for the Patriots at this point. A big part of Super Bowl week is not peaking too early, so things are slow-played a bit. I can understand why it might look bad for him to be out at a game for a quarter, but given where they are at this point of the work week, I don't see it as a big deal at all. If it were last Tuesday (two days after the AFC Championship Game) when they were grinding to get ready on the Eagles, that would be a different story.