The New England Patriots have been very active in free agency thus far in 2014 as they look to bring in more talent to get back to the AFC Championship Game in 2014. One of the positions the team has attempted to address is wide receiver, where the Patriots struggled for consistent production in 2013. Outside of Julian Edelman, no Patriots receiver seemed to develop the necessary chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady to really feature in the offense last year. With some changes made at the position and perhaps more to come, let’s take a look at where the receiver position stands for the Patriots at this point in the offseason.
New England currently has ten receivers on its roster, as indicated in the table below which shows those receivers’ 2013 production, whether as a Patriot or as a member of another organization. As you can see, there is a big drop off in production after Julian Edelman so the Patriots were smart to make one of their offseason priorities bringing the veteran slot receiver back and ensuring that Tom Brady will have some continuity at the position in 2014. As the Patriots look to continue to improve at the position prior to the 2014 season, let’s take a look at the big issues the team must grapple with between now and their 2014 opener.
Will someone emerge to challenge Edelman?
Julian Edelman will be considered the number one receiver on the Patriots until he’s supplanted by someone else. That scenario would not be the worst one for the Patriots given that Edelman is not really your prototypical number one receiver. There was a big drop off in production after Edelman in 2013, so the Patriots were smart to make one of their offseason priorities bringing him back and ensuring that Tom Brady will have some continuity at the position in 2014. But the team would love for Brady to develop a rapport with another receiver (or two) in 2014. The most likely option at this point is free agent acquisition Brandon LaFell. LaFell had solid production with the Carolina Panthers last year and offers Tom Brady another veteran presence on offense. LaFell is bigger than the team’s other receivers (6-2, 210 lbs) and should give Brady the physical presence he’s been lacking along the sidelines and, hopefully, in the red zone. If the Patriots are lucky, LaFell will grow into a David Givens style role in 2014.
Of course, the other big question behind Edelman is the role of Danny Amendola in the offense next year. Amendola’s had a tumultuous tenure in Foxboro thus far, struggling to stay on the field and not figuring prominently in the offense when it mattered most last year. Much of the criticism of Amendola may be unfair given that he’s known mostly for the drop he had in last year’s AFC Championship Game and more generally just not featuring in the offensive game plan that day. The Patriots likely still see value in Amendola, however, given Edelman’s injury history and seem willing to give the receiver another chance in 2014.
Can second year receivers make progress?
Despite all of their early struggles last season, the Patriots three young 2013 draft picks all showed real promise at times and will continue to be important to the Patriots offense in 2014. The team has high hopes that Aaron Dobson can stay healthy and continue his development in the offense. Early indications regarding his health are not good, however. Dobson had surgery in March to treat a stress fracture in his left foot. As a result, Dobson will not be ready to participate in the Patriots offseason activities when they begin next month. It will be critical for Dobson to get healthy before the start of training camp if he wants to figure prominently in the Patriots offense in 2014. Of all the young receivers last season, Dobson showed the most promise when healthy and seemed to begin to develop that chemistry with Brady that was lacking with the other receivers. If he can stay healthy, he could make a big splash in 2014.
Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce had mixed results last season. Thompkins had some big moments, none more so than his last second touchdown catch against the Saints, but really struggled to catch the ball consistently and in his route running late in the season. Boyce struggled to get playing time behind the other receivers on the roster. When he did get the ball, however, he made the most of it showing his quickness and his potential as a playmaker. But Boyce also struggled with injuries late in the season and wasn’t active for the Patriots two playoff games. Both players will likely be playing for roster spots in camp and if I had to guess Boyce is more likely to make the cut given the potential value he offers on special teams.
Who is on the roster bubble?
Reggie Dunn, Mark Harrison and Greg Orton are real long shots to make the roster, particularly given that the Patriots may not be done adding depth at the position. One or more of these players could be gone before camp even begins. Of the three, however, it seems most likely that former Rutgers receiver Mark Harrison will remain with the team, although even that may be unlikely. Harrison’s value is in his size (6-3, 231 lbs) and potential ability to move to tight end, as some analysts have speculated. In addition, it’s also possible, particularly depending on what the Patriots do in the draft, that the team could part ways with one of its 2013 draft picks at the position. If that is a real possibility, Kenbrell Thompkins seems like the most likely candidate to be looking for work elsewhere. There’s also the possibility that the team has second thoughts about Amendola, although that seems less likely now than it did earlier in the offseason.
Will the Patriots draft at the receiver position?
You may think it’s unlikely that the Patriots will use draft picks on the receiver position given the relatively high draft picks the team invested at the position in 2013. It’s still possible, however, that the team will look for talent at wide receiver in the draft. This draft class has been lauded as one of the deepest at the receiver position in more than a decade and as you would expect the Patriots are exploring options at the position and have shown interest in a number of high profile prospects. NESN’s Doug Kyed breaks down the options well for the Patriots at the position and seems high on USC’s Marqise Lee. If the Patriots do take a receiver high in the draft, it likely means that at least one of the young receivers on the roster last season won’t be back in 2014.
Months remain before the Patriots open the 2014 season and there’s still all kinds of possibilities for the Patriots to improve at receiver. It’s still possible the team could add another veteran free agent receiver as well. What seems like a sure bet, however, is that the Patriots will have real competition at the position this year in training camp. As the team continues to develop its roster the receiver position will remain a key area to watch.