By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Malcolm Mitchell’s career as a member of the New England Patriots appeared to be in jeopardy before it ever properly began.
It was a midsummer night at Gillette Stadium when the Patriots hosted the Saints for both teams’ preseason opener. With Tom Brady facing a four-game suspension to start the year, everyone had their eyes squarely focused on third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. And the early returns were positive.
In particular, Garoppolo seemed to have developed some chemistry with Mitchell, a rookie receiver drafted in the fourth round. Mitchell caught four passes for 55 yards, emerging as an early candidate to be a breakout star. But it was on his fourth and final catch of the night that he was dragged down to the turf. He extended his left arm to brace for impact but his elbow bent in a way that elbows should not necessarily bend. He was tended to on the field by the training staff, with his night ending earlier than anyone would have liked.
After getting drafted — and after all of the accompanying coverage of Mitchell’s quest at Georgia to become a better reader — this was unquestionably a disappointing blow.
But Mitchell worked to make sure that setback was disappointing and not devastating. He didn’t play for the rest of the preseason but did make it onto the field in Week 1. There, he caught two passes for 33 yards. For the most part, through the first half of the season, Mitchell was a modest contributor to the Patriots’ offense, catching seven passes for 82 yards through Week 10. But then, when Brady returned to the Bay Area to take on the 49ers, Mitchell stepped up with four receptions for 98 yards and his first career touchdown. From there, he became a go-to for Brady, catching 17 passes for 165 yards and three more touchdowns over the following three weeks. Rookie receivers generally hadn’t succeeded in Brady’s offenses over the years, but Mitchell clearly had something.
Yet late in the year, Mitchell’s knee began to be an issue. Knee problems plagued him in college, and they contributed to his draft spot in the fourth round. He missed the team’s Week 17 game against the Dolphins and two weeks later missed the divisional round matchup with the Texans. He returned for the AFC Championship Game, quietly catching just one pass for five yards, all while looking a bit out of sorts.
Needless to say, not many people were talking about Mitchell heading into Super Bowl LI against the Falcons. Not much was to be expected from a rookie receiver who had battled multiple injuries dating back to the preseason.
But, as Mitchell tended to do, the rookie continued to put in work behind the scenes and get ready for the biggest game of his life. Suffice it to say, he showed up in a big way.
The receiver wasn’t involved much through the first three quarters of the game. But then again, neither were most of his offensive teammates. Brady threw Mitchell’s way twice in the first half, going 1-for-2 for seven yards. But as the Patriots entered the fourth quarter trailing 28-9, Brady began to show that his trust in Mitchell was clear.
On the first offensive play of the fourth quarter, Brady went to Mitchell for a gain of 15 yards. On the very next play, Brady went right back to Mitchell, this time picking up seven yards. Three plays later, on a second-and-10, Brady connected with Mitchell for a big gain of 18 yards to get the Patriots across midfield. The drive ended in a field goal.
Following Dont’a Hightower’s strip sack of Matt Ryan, the Patriots faced a critical third-and-11 at the Falcons’ 26-yard line. A field goal here would have done the Patriots no good, and it was time for a big-time play in a big-time moment. Brady looked to Mitchell.
Brady hit Mitchell on a comeback route, and Mitchell fell across the line to gain for a 12-yard pickup to move the chains. Two plays later, New England was in the end zone.
Following the Trey Flowers sack/Jake Matthews holding penalty combination, the Patriots took over at their own 9-yard line, needing eight points to make history and tie the football game. On a second-and-10 from their own 25-yard line, the offense went right back to that same play that worked on third-and-11. This time, though, Mitchell actually fell down at the top of his route, just as Brady was releasing the pass to the left sideline. The results could have been disastrous.
But Mitchell casually popped himself up off the turf and hauled in the pass, right in front of a slightly bewildered Jalen Collins.
The Patriots went on, of course to win in overtime. And on James White’s game-winning rush to the right side, who was there dutifully blocking on the outside but No. 19, Malcolm Mitchell. He — along with his teammates — immediately erupted in emotion.
That pop-up catch would be Mitchell’s final reception of the Super Bowl, And, after Monday’s decision by the Patriots to release Mitchell, it will go down as his final catch as a member of the Patriots.
A knee injury kept Mitchell off the field in 2017. He still put in the work, eventually getting back on the practice field before season’s end. He never did make it back on the field, but his presence at practice provided a positive indication that perhaps Mitchell’s Patriots career may be saved.
Alas, this offseason has been spent speculating about Mitchell’s health, and his presence on the practice field has been sporadic. He’s been present, willing to put in the work. But clearly from the Patriots’ eyes, the knees aren’t cooperating.
All told, it’s a bit of a sad sports story. A young man whose story was easy to get behind appeared to be embarking on a promising career with football’s most prominent franchise. Instead, after a brief burst, that path has been closed. Now, it’s up to Mitchell to try to salvage an NFL career after missing significant time in his early 20s. It won’t be easy.
But for as much as the end of Mitchell’s Patriots tenure comes as a disappointment to many, there is still that distinct memory of Super Bowl LI, a historic occasion in which countless longtime NFL players dream of playing. In a supernova of a game that won’t soon be forgotten, Mitchell caught five passes for 63 yards when it absolutely mattered the most. Mitchell may not end up having a Hall of Fame career — he certainly won’t have one with New England — but his major contributions to one of the greatest wins in football history is not the worst accolade for any player to achieve.