Trying to make sense of New England’s depth chart at wide receiver almost never disappoints.
Whether it’s one of the greatest positional groups ever assembled (2007), a fatal flaw (2006) or a group where Tom Brady’s favorite receiver is the open one (2004), sorting out where and how the bodies will line up is accompanied by one all-important question: is it good enough to help the Patriots win the Super Bowl?
Don’t misconstrue last year’s championship as evidence that Brady had adequate help in the passing attack. It was the presence of two players, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, that supplemented an all-time performance by New England’s defense and a steady performance from running back Sony Michel to deliver the sixth Lombardi Trophy to Foxboro.
Gronkowski, of course, was a tight end and is now retired, only further complicating matters with Brady’s targets. The best option at tight end right now for the Patriots is Ben Watson, who’s 38 years old and suspended for the first month of the season.
Edelman won Super Bowl MVP with 10 catches for 141 yards, a much-deserved honor that padded the résumé of a career that just might be worthy of Canton someday. He’s currently on the non-football injury list with a thumb injury, however, the latest in a long line of dings and dents Edelman has dealt with throughout his career.
Edelman is the surest thing the Patriots have at receiver, but there’s no clear timetable for his return. At 33 years old, he’s the third-oldest wide receiver in the NFL behind only Larry Fitzgerald and Ted Ginn Jr.
Contrast that with N’Keal Harry, the second-youngest receiver drafted last April, who had three drops at practice on Wednesday before redeeming himself with a nice touchdown catch during 11-on-11 drills on Thursday. Harry’s status as the first receiver drafted in the first round by Bill Belichick guarantees him nothing from a playing time perspective, but it ensures he’ll be on the roster come Week 1.
Harry’s upside is way higher than that of departed free agents Chris Hogan or Cordarrelle Patterson, even when you consider the sobering history of rookie receivers in Foxboro.
“There’s a lot of turnover every year and you deal with the turnover, and there’s a lot of new guys trying to assimilate into what we’ve done here for a long time,” Brady said. “It’s really up to them to get up to speed, and everyone here has got to help them get there.”
Phillip Dorsett, set to enter his third season with the Patriots, is a player who certainly should still be around for the regular season – even if you can’t help but wonder why Dorsett, after catching a touchdown pass in each of New England’s first two playoff games last season, failed to receive so much as a target from Brady in the Super Bowl.
“I love it here,” said Dorsett, who re-signed with the Patriots on a one-year, $2.6 million contract in March. “I love the team atmosphere, I love everybody in the organization. I love the coaches, the owners…it made me want to come back. I didn’t want to go anywhere.”
There still remains a chance, however slight, that Josh Gordon rejoins the Patriots at some point.
“We don’t have anything to do with Josh Gordon,” Belichick said Thursday morning. “He’s suspended. You need to talk to the league. We have no control over Josh Gordon.”
Which is why – at least – one player from the group of Braxton Berrios, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Damoun Patterson and Ryan Davis is going to get plenty of opportunities to hang around with the varsity this season. At bare minimum, a six-week trial period until Demaryius Thomas is ready to return from the physically unable to perform list.
Harris, entering his fourth NFL season, has spent the early portion of camp developing a rapport with Brady. Last year was his best season, catching 28 passes for 304 yards, but it’s hard to read too much into what he’s truly capable of while he was wasting away in the football purgatory of Washington, D.C.
“I have to get caught up,” Harris said on Monday. “I just have to take it one day at a time and continue to build.”
Meyers, a 6-foot-2 undrafted free agent out of North Carolina State, has gotten plenty of looks thus far in camp and has a distinct advantage in height over several players he’s competing with – namely Berrios, Olszewski and Davis, none of whom are yet to play a snap in the NFL either.
New England’s first preseason game, a week from Thursday at Detroit, is when players will first be able to truly separate themselves from the pack. The biggest thing to look for won’t necessarily be who’s putting up the biggest numbers, but who’s lining up where and when based on the situation.
This group will never be confused with some of the great depth charts the Patriots have had at wide receiver this century. Still, there’s enough going on here where some guarded optimism is perfectly warranted at a position which was consistently underwhelming in 2018, Super Bowl or not.