Patriots: Who will act as the passing game’s deep threat?

The Patriots wide receiving corps doesn’t have a clear cut deep threat.

It’s no secret that a deep threat blowing the top off a defense is key to a passing attack. Not only does a player who beats coverage downfield create explosive plays to gain yards in chunks, but they also command attention from the defense. By forcing safeties to take a step back and keep their eyes on the deep threat in coverage, the field is opened up underneath for tight ends and slot receivers.

The premier example of this in the Bill Belichick era was Randy Moss, who scored 23 touchdowns in the 2007 season for the New England Patriots. He garnered so much attention that Wes Welker was able to rack up 112 catches from the slot. More recently, it was Brandin Cooks who helped open up the field for Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.

Of that group, only Edelman remains, and he’s no deep threat. Edelman is a slot receiver, through and through. Now, without Brady to throw to him, Edelman will need a deep threat to help open up the field more than ever. But, in a much maligned receiving corps, who is about to act as a deep threat?

The hope, which should be obvious enough, is that N’Keal Harry takes a big leap in year two and can start drawing more attention. He’s coming into the season as the clear No. 2 receiver for Cam Newton and the rest of the offense.

Harry is the prototypical deep threat. He stands at 6-foot-4, which gives him a significant size advantage over most defensive backs. Add in a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and he certainly possesses the speed to be a vertical threat. In college, he averaged 13.6 yards per reception across three seasons and 14.9 during his junior campaign at Arizona State.

The raw tangibles are there, but he simply lacks the proof of concept at the NFL level.

The next receiver up is Jakobi Meyers, who was a bit of a surprise last year as a rookie. He averaged 13.8 yards per catch on 26 receptions (for comparison, Edelman averaged 11.2 YPC) in 2019, which is more than anyone expected from an undrafted rookie. Meyers has decent size (6-foot-2) and speed (4.63 40-yard dash).

Meyers is expected to take on an expanded role, and the hope is he is able to step into it gracefully. However, to assume he’s ready to be an integral piece of the offense is a bit unfair this early in his career. As of now, he’s best suited to play opposite the deep threat, where he can beat one-on-one coverage.

And what about Gunner Olszewski? The second-year receiver acted primarily as a punt returner in 2019, but was emerging as a solid piece in the passing game during training camp. While he should contribute when he’s healthy, he’s too undersized to be a deep threat (and he’s still converting from playing defensive back in college).

So, who else is there? Marqise Lee opted out of the season, and the veteran was never a deep threat in his career anyway. Mohamed Sanu didn’t even make the 53-man roster. We all love Matthew Slater, but we also know his limitations from his traditional receiver position. Then there’s Damiere Byrd, who is really more of a backup slot receiver than a deep threat. It’s believed he will assume Sanu’s role.

That leaves the question, which of these players can step up and be the deep threat?

By process of elimination, it feels like it’ll be N’Keal Harry. Now that he’s healthy and ready to start 2020 fresh after missing the first 10 weeks of the 2019 campaign, the coaching staff clearly has confidence in him based on his performance in training camp and developing relationship with Cam Newton.

We’ll see what Josh McDaniels deploys against the Dolphins on Sunday, but look for Newton hitting Harry deep down field.