Commentary

Rash of injuries tests Patriots' depth

Updated: August 16, 2010, 1:45 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The day after the New England Patriots' preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, coach Bill Belichick was back in his office, breaking down film and looking at medical reports.

"We'll take stock of what our health is, and take the players that are healthy down to Atlanta and work with them," he said.

The Patriots leave for Atlanta on Monday afternoon, and there will be quite a few open seats on the plane. This team is banged up.

The injury ranks expanded by three Sunday afternoon when outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (right ankle), inside linebacker/fullback Thomas Williams (right ankle/foot) and receiver Darnell Jenkins (lower right leg) all were knocked out of practice.

Of the group, Banta-Cain is the player the Patriots can least afford to lose for an extended period of time. He led the team in sacks in 2009 and has emerged as an overall leader at a position that is one of the team's bigger question marks. While the injury didn't appear to be anything that would become a long-term issue -- Banta-Cain walked off under his own power -- it could keep him from traveling to Atlanta and alter preparations for Thursday's preseason game against the Falcons.

If that's the case, veteran Derrick Burgess' return to the team was well-timed.

With rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham being held out of practice Sunday -- he was knocked out of Wednesday's joint practice with the Saints and did not play in the preseason opener -- the Patriots could be operating with just four players at outside linebacker (Burgess, Marques Murrell, Pierre Woods, Rob Ninkovich).

Every day, it seems, there is a new injury twist for the Patriots.

On Sunday, it started with veteran receiver Torry Holt, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve. He will undergo knee surgery this week, according to his agent, Kennard McGuire.

Holt wasn't a lock for a roster spot, but he provided insurance if Wes Welker experienced a setback in his return from left knee surgery or second-year receiver Brandon Tate didn't develop as hoped.

Just two days prior, the Patriots ended starting defensive end Ty Warren's season by placing him on injured reserve with a labral tear in his hip. The team is holding out hope that the same outcome won't happen with offensive lineman Nick Kaczur, who has missed the last 16 practices with a back injury that could threaten his 2010 season.

That's a lot of strength and power to lose at the line of scrimmage before the season even begins, and it doesn't even factor in the contract standoff with guard Logan Mankins, who remains unsigned. Of all the injuries and absences the Patriots have absorbed, the holes along the lines look like the most damaging from a long-range perspective.

If there is any consolation, it's not as if the Patriots are alone. A look across the NFL shows that many teams have been hit by a similar string of injuries.

The key for the Patriots and Belichick is to manage them with the long term in mind.

So when a player like veteran defensive end Damione Lewis is held out of Sunday's practice, he probably will be staying home from Atlanta too, along with safety Bret Lockett, cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Terrence Johnson, inside linebacker Gary Guyton, offensive lineman George Bussey, inside linebacker Dane Fletcher, and receiver Matthew Slater, none of whom practiced Sunday.

The Patriots are 24 practices into their training camp and the training room has been a bit busier than desired. Because of that, there has been a near-daily churning on the bottom of the roster to address depth concerns.

It's not ideal, but it's football, especially at this time of year.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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