HOUSTON, TX – FEBRUARY 05: Malcolm Mitchell #19 of the New England Patriots gets tackled by Robert Alford #23 of the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. The Patriots defeat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The National Football League is full of stories of great players who, for whatever reason, just couldn’t make a full career playing the sport they love. As far as recent Patriots’ history goes, there’s no greater “what could have been” case than wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell was an integral part of the 2016 Super Bowl run but recently retired following a series of knee surgeries.

During his lone year in New England, Malcolm Mitchell recorded 32 receptions for 401 yards and four touchdowns. Rookie wide receivers historically struggle in New England, making his stat line all the more impressive.

Mitchell’s 2016 was one of the best rookie seasons in the Tom BradyBill Belichick Era. Only Aaron Dobson, Deion Branch, and Julian Edelman had more receptions as a rookie than Mitchell, and Mitchell’s four touchdowns are tied for Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins for most by a Patriots rookie receiver.

While his rookie season was a statistical success, watching Mitchell’s game film shows the promise of a player who could have developed into one of the better wide receivers in the league. Knee injuries derailed his career, but Mitchell’s potential was abundantly clear during his lone season in the league.

Mitchell impressed during his first training camp and earned reps with the first-team offense in 2016’s preseason opener. The Georgia product made the most of that opportunity, recording four catches for 55 yards while looking like the best player on the field. Unfortunately, Mitchell suffered a freak arm injury, effectively ending his preseason. The injury cost him valuable development time, sending him to the bottom of the depth chart.

Mitchell’s Regular Season

Malcolm Mitchell started the 2016 season buried behind Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola. The first-year receiver didn’t see the field much early on, but he made his limited snaps count.

Mitchell showed the ability to be physical, tackle-breaking perimeter weapon in his very first game. Facing a third-and-seven against the Arizona Cardinals, backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo targeted Mitchell on a quick curl route along the sideline. Despite tight coverage, Mitchell made the catch eight yards from the line of scrimmage. Not content with just getting the first down, Mitchell broke a tackle and made it all the way down to the Arizona seven-yard line for a 26-yard gain. This wasn’t a one-time fluke, as Mitchell made a similar play two weeks later against the Houston Texans.

Eventually, Mitchell proved too good to keep off the field. The Georgia product emerged in a big way against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 11. Playing a career-high 85.7% of the offensive snaps, Mitchell finished his night with four receptions for 98 yards and one touchdown. The touchdown pass came on an improvised play where Mitchell demonstrated an advanced chemsity with quarterback Tom Brady.

Mitchell built on this performance by recording five receptions for 42 yards and two touchdowns in Week 12 against the New York Jets. Mitchell’s second touchdown ended up being the game-winning score and both touchdowns came against former All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis.

Mitchell continued his strong regular season until he suffered a knee injury in Week 16 against the Jets. Mitchell missed Week 17 and finished his regular season with 32 receptions for 401 yards and four touchdowns. Mitchell’s best play came during a four-week stretch where he recorded 21 receptions for 263 yards and four touchdowns. While his regular season was impressive, his best was yet to come.

Mitchell’s Super Bowl Heroics

Mitchell missed the AFC Divisional Round against the Houston Texans but made it back onto the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. The rookie clearly wasn’t himself, catching just one of his four targets for five yards. Despite his lowly output, the Georgia product played a major role in the best comeback in sports history just two weeks later.

The Patriots found themselves trailing 28-3 midway through the third quarter in large part because they couldn’t attack the middle of the field. The Atlanta Falcons were playing a single high safety for the majority of the game with coverage focused on taking away Julian Edelman and the inside routes.

The one weakness with Atlanta’s defensive gameplan is that it left Malcolm Mitchell alone on the outside with a cornerback. New England stayed away from this matchup early but turned to Mitchell late in the game. Mitchell finished the game six receptions for 70 yards, with five receptions and 63 yards coming in the fourth quarter. His fourth-quarter yardage led the team and four of Mitchell’s receptions went for first downs. It’s not hyperbole to say that the New England Patriots do not win Super Bowl LI without Malcolm Mitchell.

The last catch of Mitchell’s career was emblematic of his entire Patriots tenure. Facing second and 10, Mitchell ran an 11-yard comeback route. Mitchell fell to the ground out of his cut but quickly recovered to haul in the pass. Although Mitchell finished the game, the rookie got up slow after the catch and never caught another pass. Mitchell underwent multiple knee surgeries since that memorable Super Bowl and has yet to play a meaningful snap. Had he stayed healthy, Mitchell easily could have developed into a perennial 1,000-yard receiver in this offense. Unfortunately, he’s yet another case of what could have been.

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