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Will Josh Gordon make Patriots debut Sunday in Detroit? Here’s what we know

September 23, 2018

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick opted not to comment on his team’s acquisition of wide receiver Josh Gordon. Belichick’s reasoning was that the trade hadn’t been finalized with the league.

There was talk of revising the compensation in the deal, which we had a little fun with on Twitter. The final terms: the Patriots will get Gordon and a seventh-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft, and the Cleveland Browns will give up a 2019 fifth-rounder.

Now, Bill, can you tell us about your new toy?

“I think Josh is a smart kid, he’s worked hard, he’s picked up a lot,” Belichick said.

That’s almost the full extent of Belichick’s words on Gordon on Friday morning. Either the coach loves him or hates him, depending on how you translate Belichickese.

And as for whether Gordon will play in the Sunday night game against the Detroit Lions, well, yeah, good luck trying to pry that out of that coach. So we’re left to do a little reading between lines and such.

The first hurdle has been cleared in that Gordon’s hamstring injury — yeah, the one that prompted the Cleveland Browns trading him — will apparently not be an issue for Sunday at this point. He passed his physical without issue and has been practicing, albeit on a limited basis, the past few days. (Friday’s injury/practice report has yet to be released.)

But there’s also the matter of whether Gordon can help the team enough in this first game to be deemed worthy of a roster spot. The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, who is pretty well wired into the local scene there, had a pretty interpretive tweet saying that the Patriots’ early-week plan was to “dress” Gordon, but that doesn’t guarantee he’ll play.

Howe also made the point that past Patriots midseason WR additions don’t typically play immediately after being added to the roster. One recent exception was Kenny Britt, who was signed on Dec. 13 of last season and who played on Dec. 17 in a big game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He even caught a 7-yard pass in the game but played only 2-of-59 snaps in that contest.

But contrast that to Michael Floyd, whom the Patriots claimed on waivers on Dec. 15, 2016. Floyd sat in his first game on the Patriots’ roster, which was only three days later against the Broncos, but did play the week after that.

Some have speculated that there’s enough overlap between Todd Haley’s offensive system and the one the Patriots run, which at least is steeped in the Erhardt-Perkins terminology. We feel that’s a bit of a stretch, as both offenses have undergone years of modifications from their original progenitors, but perhaps there’s enough of common ground to where Gordon can absorb a small sliver of the playbook prior to Sunday.

For the Patriots, they’re facing a familiar foe in Lions head coach Matt Patricia, who knows the bulk of the New England personnel inside and out. Only a handful of offensive players who were brought in this offseason — namely left tackle Trent Brown, running back Sony Michel and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson — are ones whom Patricia did not see up close and personally as a member of the Patriots’ staff.

Even though the Lions have struggled in most phases of the game, the Patriots certainly would not be above throwing some new wrinkles at them for matchup-specific purposes. You think Belichick looks past any game, much less one against his former protege? Come on now. But that also could include a Gordon package where he runs a limited number of downfield routes, if for no other reason than to help open things up and get him used to working with Tom Brady and Co.

It appears as if Lions CB Darius Slay is going to try to go in this one, even though he missed Thursday’s practice while working his way through the concussion protocol. Slay spoke to the Detroit media on Friday, which is usually a good indication that he has gotten past that hurdle and will be under consideration to play Sunday night.

If Gordon also is on the field, the Lions must respect him. For all they know, the Patriots will have worked on two or three plays where Gordon is the first target and could unleash that look early in the game to see how the defense reacts. It was only 10 days ago, after all, that Gordon caught a jump-ball touchdown in the Browns’ opener. And this has been an element missing in the Patriots’ offense through two games, outside of passes thrown to Rob Gronkowski.

Our early prediction: Gordon plays, but on a limited basis. Let’s set the over-under at 10 snaps. Gronk (ankle) now has popped up on the injury report, as has TE Jacob Hollister (chest), who had a solid showing in Week 2 with three catches (on three targets) for 35 yards in the loss to the Jags but who now has been ruled out for the Week 3 game.

The Patriots are limited in the pass-catching department anyway, so that alone could open up the door a crack on Gordon four days after his shocking trade to New England. Gordon, for the record, is listed as questionable to play in this one.

It has absolutely nothing to do with this matchup, but Gordon has never played in Detroit before. He faced the Lions once previously, back in 2013, and did a number on them: seven catches for 126 yards. And Gordon did face the Patriots once previously, in that same season, which was Patricia’s second as New England’s defensive coordinator. Gordon’s totals that day: 7-151-1 receiving, along with a 34-yard run, in a stunning near-upset that saw the Patriots win after scoring two touchdowns in the final 1:01 of the game.

All those numbers are good for is reminding us of just how rare a talent Gordon is. We know the demons he’s faced, many of which have been self-inflicted, and there’s no clear indication whether the Patriots will get anything close to that kind of production from Gordon after everything he’s been through the past few years.

But if they do ... whew, baby. Sunday night could be our first glance at what he could be in New England — but it could be a very brief one.

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