Patriots: Wide receivers proved they are on hot seat for 2020

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 13: Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 13: Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The Patriots’ wide receiver group already looks to be struggling despite the win against Miami in Week 1.

The 2019 wide receiving corps for the Patriots consisted of Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers, and N’Keal Harry. As a group, they accomplished a phenomenal feat: ranking dead last in average yards of separation. In fact, not even Julian Edelman could hit the league average mark of 2.997 yards of separation at the time of the pass; he finished at 2.82 yards.

Did the 2020 Patriots roll out a different looking group for Week 1 against Miami? Not really. Damiere Byrd was the most significant change for New England, and although he led the receivers in snaps played, the next three were Harry, Edelman, and Meyers, in that order. All in all, it seems like much of the same in 2020 as it was in 2019.

Let’s start with Byrd. He saw the field the most out of any Patriot receiver and had more fumbles than he did catches on Sunday. That’s right, he didn’t record a single reception, but was able to muff a punt. It does seem concerning that he didn’t get the ball on the offensive end; perhaps he was used as a deep threat decoy to clear the way for Julian Edelman over the middle?

Our first look at Julian Edelman on Sunday wasn’t a great one. He had a significant drop (that wasn’t recorded as a drop) that cost New England big yardage early. Edelman did lead the league in drops last year, his second time toting that accomplishment in his career, but he also had the most targets on the team last year, so some drops are expected. On Sunday, Edelman did have a few good snags, and if healthy, will be the most significant contributor for the receivers in 2020.

All in all, Edelman did have a pretty good day with his new quarterback, Cam Newton. Edelman is the heart and soul of the Patriots offense, and they need him to be productive if their passing game is to be efficient this season. It was shocking to see him only play 58% of the offensive snaps, though it might’ve been because New England emphasized the ground and pound game against Miami. Edelman’s most immense contributions should be on third-down passing situations, and perhaps his snaps will be limited on first down to reduce his risk of injury.

N’Keal Harry is someone who had a lot of hype surrounding him heading into 2020. Harry missed the first half of 2019 due to injury, so it was no wonder he was out of sync with Tom Brady, a veteran QB who values trust more than anything else on offense. Harry showed spurts in 2019 that indicated a promising 2020. His big body and ability to catch back-shoulder balls bodes well with Cam Newton. Newton is known to like bigger receivers, such as Kelvin Benjamin, with the ability to go up and get balls.

Harry played 80% of the offensive snaps and even matched Edelman in catches for Week 1 with five. However, Harry’s history near the goal line is not a good one. The referees robbed him of a touchdown in Week 14 of the 2019 campaign, where he clearly didn’t step out of bounds. Last Sunday, Harry cost the Patriots’ offense big time, as he fumbled the ball through the end zone, which resulted in a change of possession and touchback. Miami proceeded to march down the field score a touchdown.

Besides the fumble by Harry, which really made the game seem closer than it was, I’d say he had a pretty successful day. Newton looked to him far more often than Brady did in 2019, and if this is the worst you’re going to get from Harry, then the Patriots will take it. As for the other second-year wideout, Jakobi Meyers was a nonfactor, as he was not targeted at all during his seven offensive snaps.

The Patriots’ passing game was efficient in Week 1, and the wide receivers did enough to get the job done. However, they were playing Miami, and perhaps had their easiest game of the entire season already. Can they continue to be productive the rest of the way?

If New England can replicate their offensive game plan against Miami for future weeks, these wide receivers will be fine.

New England was run-heavy against the Dolphins, and it worked out great. They sustained long touchdown drives and had six different players rush the ball. The top rusher for New England on Sunday? Cam Newton. He carried the ball 15 times and accumulated 75 yards and two scores. It would be shocking to see this type of rushing from Cam Newton week in and week out, given his injury history, but he does still have the nickname “Super Cam,” so don’t be surprised if he keeps this up.

Another reason Newton might continue to carry the ball so often is that New England knows he might just be a one-year rental. Newton knows this is a massive year for him, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being showcased in a way that proves he’s still productive, and last Sunday indeed showed that. A team with plans for a quarterback long term certainly would not rush them 15 times every game, but if Newton and New England only have a one-year affair, then the offense we saw against Miami is undoubtedly replicable.

If New England can continue to run for over 200 yards on the ground for an average of over 5.0 yards per carry, then their wide receiver group will be suitable for the job. Harry and Edelman are outstanding blocking wide receivers, so they are fantastic in the run game as well. However, if New England tries to drop back and pass the ball 50 times instead of just 19, then this group could be exposed for what they are — the same collection of receivers who ranked last in separation in 2019.

I think next week against Seattle on Sunday Night Football will be an excellent test for these Patriot receivers. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love for Julian Edelman to be healthy and productive, or for N’Keal Harry to live up to his potential. When the lights are bright, they’re on the road, and they go up against a significantly better team than Miami next Sunday, I think we will get a good grasp of who the Patriots are working with at the receiver position in 2020.