Malcolm Mitchell is officially off the injured reserve, and the New England Patriots couldn’t be more thrilled. The Patriots offense has been in something of a rut lately, and Mitchell’s return could be a big part in kickstarting their offense for the postseason run.
Even without Malcolm Mitchell’s injury, New England’s 2017 receiver depth chart would have looked different from a typical Patriots season. With Edelman gone for the year, Tom Brady has been throwing deep more than ever, and Brandin Cooks has been the primary beneficiary. Cooks has been great this season, but there’s some clear holes in his game. For one, he’s a pure speed threat. Cooks excels at gaining separation from cornerbacks, particularly in the deep part of the field, but doesn’t play physical. With Cooks, he’s either open by two steps or not at all. Take Brady’s second interception against Miami for instance.
Cooks initially has a step on Xavien Howard (once again in coverage on Cooks), but Brady slightly underthrows the pass. While the throw wasn’t perfect, Cooks doesn’t do Brady any favors. Instead of jumping and going to the football, Cooks slows down and waits for it to come to him.
Howard uses his great closing speed to snag his second interception of the night. While this may read as bashing the Patriots number one receiver, that’s not the point of this article. Cooks has been a great acquisition for this Patriots team, and the offense would likely be lost without him. The aim is to merely point out that there are limits to what a smaller receiver like Cooks can do.
A Reliable Intermediate, Perimeter Threat
While Malcolm Mitchell may only have an extra inch and five extra pounds on Cooks, he plays like a bigger receiver. He’ll never be the deep threat that Cooks is and probably won’t even be as good a pure deep threat as Chris Hogan. However, Mitchell is the guy that can make the tough, contested catches that only Rob Gronkowski can make right now. He showed a lot of promise his rookie year, but the Super Bowl shows what he can bring to this team.
Check out the play that starts at 13:42. It’s only one play, but it’s the perfect case study in what Mitchell can be for this team. The Patriots have just begun their improbable comeback, and Mitchell is about to be a big part erasing the deficit.
Look at how the Atlanta Falcon’s defense is set up. Four are defensive lineman and three are on the far side of the screen with Julian Edelman, Hogan and Danny Amendola. One linebacker is positioned on the near side hash marks, responsible for covering James White and discouraging throws over the middle should White stay in to block. The safety on screen hovers in the middle of the field, focused on taking away the routes that Edelman and Amendola make a living on. The deep safety, not shown, plays over the top to take away the deep ball.
With these 10 players, the Falcons have taken away essentially everything the 2016 Patriots liked to do. There’s a defender on every receiver, while Edelman and Amendola are limited with Atlanta focused on taking away the middle of the field. Hogan, while a valuable role player, isn’t good enough to consistently beat the double coverage the Falcons were playing. On paper, White may be able to pick up a six or seven yard gain based on his matchup; that’s not good enough on third and 11. The one true weakness with this defensive scheme is that it leaves Mitchell all alone on the near side.
At the snap, Falcons cornerback C.J. Goodwin is responsible for Mitchell. Despite tight press coverage, Mitchell beats Goodwin off the line and runs a great comeback route. The end result is 11 yards and a first down. The Patriots ran that concept multiple times in the late third and fourth quarters, and Mitchell’s ability to consistently win those one-on-one matchups is a big part of what made the comeback possible.
Atlanta had to respect the outside receiver, which opened up the rest of the field. Mitchell finished his day with seven receptions for 70 yards, five of which came in the fourth quarter during that furious comeback. His performance often gets forgotten in the midst of all the other heroics from that day, but without him, the Patriots probably don’t win that Super Bowl.
From his first pro reception, Mitchell has been great at winning physical battles and contested catches. Cooks and Hogan are more pure burners, while Amendola is solely a slot receiver. This offense has been missing that reliable intermediate threat on the perimeter.
So far Mitchell’s potential impact has been covered, but what’s a realistic expectation for him? After all, the second year player was on injured reserve for the first 16 weeks and only started practicing this week. Nobody knows how well he knows the playbook or if he’s close to 100%. Nevertheless, there’s reason to believe in Mitchell. Hopefully he can play this week to knock off some rust. If he can play, expect him to be a little rusty in the AFC Divisional Game before being back to full go in the AFC Championship Game.
Mitchell’s done this before. Last season, he missed the final two regular season games an the AFC divisional game with a knee injury. He came back in the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but didn’t do much. He only had one catch for five yards, but overcame that to have a great Super Bowl, as previously mentioned. Expect history to repeat itself, and see what Mitchell can do in his second playoff run in as many years.
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