New England Patriots: Evaluating the wide receivers
The New England Patriots undeniably have talent at wide receiver this season, but that talent still has a fair share of question marks attached to it.
With the loss of All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski in the passing game, things certainly become a little more challenging for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots this season on offense.
The wide receiver breakdown is still a little uncertain for the Pats, but based off the initial 53-man roster and injured reserve list, we can assume it is going to include Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski (probably as a returner), N’Keal Harry (IR), and of course Matthew Slater (on special teams as a gunner).
Julian Edelman is going to be the leader of this wide receiver unit. Edelman has carved his way into being one of the best slot receivers in the NFL. Last season, he caught 74 passes for 850 yards, bringing in six touchdowns along the way as well.
Without a doubt, Edelman is the best playmaker on the Patriots. If the reigning Super Bowl MVP can catch 100 passes this season, it’s wholly possible and probable he will surpass 1,000 receiving yards.
Josh Gordon still has a huge question mark lingering over his head. No one knows how long he will last this season, but we’re all hoping he is moving in the right direction in dealing with his addiction and bettering his life. Gordon was taken off the NFL’s suspended list and is now eligible to play in Week 1 for the Pats.
In a short sample size last season, we saw what Gordon and Brady are capable of when both are together on the field. In just 11 games, Gordon produced 720 receiving yards on 40 catches, which included three touchdown receptions. It’s not hard to believe that Gordon is still capable of producing big numbers, and if he is able to play a full season, it certainly feels like the sky’s the limit for what he and Brady can accomplish.
N’Keal Harry was expected to be a big element for the New England offense this season. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been too much to see from Harry, as the first-round pick is dealing with an unspecified leg/knee injury suffered during the week of the preseason matchup against the Detroit Lions. The Patriots are inarguably going to be a better team with Harry when he’s back to 100% health and functionality, but who’s to say when that will be?
If Harry is expected to be the other starting wide receiver alongside Edelman and Gordon, then he has a chance to produce anywhere from 750 -1,000+ yards. Harry is also known to be an excellent run blocker from his college days, and as such, he could provide extra support in the running game when he returns from IR later on this season.
Phillip Dorsett has proved himself to be somewhat reliable and durable during his time with the New England Patriots. In Dorsett’s two seasons with the team, he has been targeted 60 times and has caught 44 passes. He is fast and elusive, and will have an important role within this wide receiver group now that he’s solidified his spot on the roster. With Harry set to miss significant time with his injury, there could be more opportunity for Dorsett to get in the game this year.
Jakobi Meyers made a huge, unexpected bang during the Patriots preseason. He joins a growing list of undrafted free agents who have made a name for themselves in New England, as Coach Belichick loves finding “diamonds in the rough” when it comes to incoming college talent. Meyers displayed great chemistry with backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham pretty early on during the preseason; he seemed a bit less in-sync with Brady at times.
Obviously it is going to take time for any and all rookie receivers to know what their quarterback is expecting of them on any given play, especially with a seasoned signal-caller as experienced and intelligent as Brady. Meyers and Brady might also have to get on the same page rather quickly, seeing as he is another potential candidate for increased playing time with Harry going on IR.
Gunner Olszewski is another undrafted rookie free agent, only he came out of a Division II school: Bemidji State. While in college, Gunner was an exceptional defender, as he won defensive player of the year last season while playing cornerback.
Belichick has worked all offseason in converting Olszewski to a receiver; more importantly, the Pats have found someone they think can become their next return-man in Olszewski as well, especially with other players like Edelman and Patrick Chung getting older. During the preseason, fans were able to see the versatility and durability of Olszewski on a number of plays, which may have been what ultimately convinced coaches to keep him on the final roster.
Demaryius Thomas was surprisingly part of the Patriots’ initial roster cutdowns, just a couple days after posting a brilliant two-touchdown, 87-yard performance in New England’s final preseason game against the New York Giants. At the time, many wondered if Belichick perhaps had something up his sleeve in releasing a player who had seemingly shown enough to convince he was all the way back from his Achilles injury last December.
Sure enough, Belichick (and Thomas) had a plan in place. N’Keal Harry took Thomas’ spot on the initial 53-man roster so that he could then be stashed on injured reserve to start the season. In turn, the Patriots re-signed Thomas with Harry’s vacated spot, reinserting him into their receiver depth chart just in time for the final week of practice before New England’s regular season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
All in all, this New England wide receiver depth chart is pretty impressive from top-to-bottom. And while uncertainty remains in several key areas (Harry’s and Thomas’ health, Gordon’s behavior, Olszewski’s and Meyers’ youth, etc), the Patriots’ pass-catchers still have plenty of talent, ability, and explosiveness to contribute to the offense this season.