With training camp nearly here, one of the camp battles to watch for on the New England Patriots will be at the backup slot wide receiver.
The New England Patriots not only survived the loss of wide receiver Julian Edelman in 2017, but they even thrived in the Super Bowl against one of the best and most disruptive defenses without Brandin Cooks and his 65 receptions and 1,082 regular season yards (all statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted). While New England lost 41-33 to Philadelphia, the 505 yards passing was not the reason.
New England traded Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams for the first round draft pick that turned into Isaiah Wynn. They also lost veteran slot receiver Danny Amendola in free agency to the Miami Dolphins who overpaid the oft-injury prone veteran with a two-year, $12 million deal after he took pay cuts to remain in New England the past three seasons.
New England will be without Edelman a while longer as he is suspended for the first four games of 2018 due to testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Without Edelman for four games and Amendola in Miami, the Patriots will need to find a starter for four games in the slot and a solid contributor in four wide receiver sets and back-up to Edelman.
Of course, with Bill Belichick running the show, a position of such importance is not going to be left without a Plan “B” (or Plan “C” or “D” for that matter). For the Patriots, there are a number of options at slot wide receiver as they head into training camp:
Last year with Edelman injured and Cooks on the outside, Chris Hogan was able to step-up and contribute filling in on the inside. Hogan was on pace for 66 receptions and 876 yards receiving with ten touchdowns before he injured his shoulder against the Chargers. Although he tried to return against Miami in week 13, he did not play until the playoffs and was in a limited role until stepping in for Cooks in Super Bowl 52.
In the Super Bowl Hogan stepped in and hauled in six catches for 128 yards. He had a touchdown in the game and seamlessly replaced Cooks. That may have been a key reason why the Patriots were willing to move on from Cooks.
However, with no Cooks in 2018, Hogan should have a larger role on the outside. If he is to be playing inside, it would require that Malcolm Mitchell be healthy and able to start (after missing all of 2017 to a knee injury) or veteran Kenny Britt (two receptions in three games) or former first-round draft pick Phillip Dorsett (12 receptions) to be able to win a starting role.
While he has the ability to fill in on the inside, his ability to play outside and contribute in the offense makes him unlikely to fill in for the first four weeks in the slot.
New England signed the most productive slot receiver of 2014 to 2016 in free agency in former Philadelphia Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews. Matthews had 67, 85 and 73 receptions in three years with the Eagles.
Matthews struggled mightily in 2017 slowed by injuries and bad offensive game plans in Buffalo. He was held to ten games and had just 25 receptions and one touchdown. He suffered a sternum fracture in training camp and then came back and required thumb surgery missing a month. After returning to the offense again, he required surgery on both his knee and ankle injuries which he blamed on the Eagles’ medical staff according to Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News.
Matthews is a different type of slot receiver in that he is six-foot-three and creates a mismatch with his size in the slot. After averaging 75 receptions in his first three seasons, Matthews should get back to his production with quarterback Tom Brady instead of Tyrod Taylor throwing him passes. With Matthews and tight end Rob Gronkowski in goal line situations in 2018, it should give Brady a pair of mismatches in the end zone.
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New England traded for Cordarrelle Patterson who is gadget-type wide receiver who is likely to contribute primarily on special teams. He has played in the slot on occasion, but if he is going to be part of the offense he is likely to be lined up outside the numbers and stretching the field pulling a safety with his cornerback downfield.
Of course, the Patriots already have that player in the decoy deep threat role in Phillip Dorsett. Dorsett’s speed and agility skill-set could make him an intriguing option in the slot but the team’s brain trust seems committed to keeping him on the outside.
Kenny Britt is the other downfield option besides Dorsett so he is likely outside the numbers only in the offense. Britt is intriguing because he was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2016 with the Rams and has had three other seasons with 700 or more yards receiving. He has played in the slot on occasion, but with his size and speed he fits best outside the numbers.
The Patriots have two intriguing options at slot wide receiver in training camp this season with seventh-round draft pick Braxton Berrios and 2017 practice squad player Riley McCarron.
McCarron was with Houston for training camp and the beginning of the season last year. He signed with the Patriots in late September and spent the season on the practice squad.
McCarron looks like the prototypical slot wide receiver at five-foot-nine and 188 pounds. He ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at his Pro Day (per Draft Scout) coming out of Iowa (another Iowan in training camp). Add in his 6.59 three-cone drill (a favorite stat of the New England front office) and a 4.16 20-yard shuttle (aka the short shuttle) and his quickness and agility jumps off the stat sheet.
Berrios was a late draft pick who was a chic pick to go to New England. Why not? He fits that same prototype as a slot receiver in the New England offense. He lacks size and length being just five-foot-eight and 184 pounds.
However, his 4.44 40-yard dash at his Pro Day (per Draft Scout) while at Miami (FL) and 6.72 three-cone drill fall in the sweet spot the Patriots are looking for in a slot receiver. His 20-yard shuttle was 4.18 also stood out. With excellent production in the ACC (45 receptions for 583 yards and nine touchdowns) and third-team ACC and the Jim Tatum student-athlete awards, he seems to have all the desirables to be in the mix for the back-up slot receiver position.
With Jordan Matthews and Julian Edelman on the field for 12 games, the Patriots seem set at slot receiver. The first quarter of the season is where another player has a chance to step-up and earn a role for 2019.
While Chris Hogan seems the natural fit, expect him to start and line-up primarily outside the numbers. Ditto for the rest of the wide receivers in the running for playing time on the edge.
That leaves McCarron and Berrios fighting for what could be one spot. Both players are the same size and have the same athletic profile. McCarron has the edge in having spent a season in the system but Berrios has the edge in production in the ACC. Flip a coin for these two, but I will go with my gut and go with the drafted Berrios as making the roster at this time.