Patriots Could Take Best-11-Players Approach to Fill X-Wide Receiver Role

Aaron Mellette, Josh Boyce, Aaron HernandezWith Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker gone, Tom Brady needs someone to throw to, right?

The Welker role was famously filled by free agent Danny Amendola, who is expected to play Z receiver in two-wide sets and slot receiver in three-wide sets. But Lloyd’s role in the offense will be the best competition to watch as rookie mini-camp, OTAs and training camp draw near.

There are four or five options currently on the Patriots’ roster who could grab that role. The two that Patriots fans are likely hoping will take the reins are rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Both players certainly have the speed, size and hands to grab a starting role in the offense, but picking up the playbook will be the tricky part.

Neither player comes from a pro-style offense, and Dobson especially wasn’t asked to run an assortment of routes at Marshall. But the Patriots could simplify their offense for the rookies if they want to put the best talent in those positions. The two could also share the role with Dobson taking more deep routes and Boyce taking the shallow to intermediate, where he could better showcase his after-the-catch abilities.

The other options to take the X role are free agents Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins and tight end/wide receiver hybrid Aaron Hernandez. Neither Jones nor Jenkins would be the exciting choice for the role, and neither really have the perfect makeup for the role, but as veterans who are over 6-foot, they would be better served than a player like Julian Edelman, who will likely backup Amendola in the Z and slot positions.

If Jones or Jenkins emerge as starters once the season breaks in September, you couldn’t help but view that as a downgrade from 2012 when Lloyd was the starter. Though Lloyd wasn’t the perfect player for the role, he was relatively consistent and certainly put together a productive 2012 season with nearly 1,000 yards through the air.

If the team is desperate, they could always move Hernandez to more of a full-time role at wide receiver. That would allow Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Jake Ballard to be on the field at the same time.

During the Patriots’ post-draft news conference, Bill Belichick started talking about putting the best players on the field, even if they’re not best suited for a certain position, when asked about the role rookie defensive end/linebacker Jamie Collins would fill.

“If he can do multiple things and do them at a high level, maybe he’ll go where he’s needed or maybe he’ll go where he’s best. I don’t know,” Belichick said. “A lot of times that happens on the offensive line. You have your five best players out there. Maybe one guy would be better at another position, but to get the best five out there, a guy has to play maybe his second best position.”

Belichick doesn’t say much there, but if you read between the lines, the head coach gave some inclination into how he puts his offense and defense together. Maybe Hernandez is best suited for the joker-tight end role, but if Dobson, Boyce, Jones or Jenkins can’t emerge, and Ballard does as a third tight end, then the best lineup of tight ends and wide receivers would be Amendola and Hernandez at wideout and Gronkowski and Ballard at tight end.

Regardless of who emerges, the Patriots will have an impressive arsenal of targets for Brady to throw to. Don’t forget that tight ends Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui will be back, and the running game will be as strong as ever with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Leon Washington, Brandon Bolden and LaGarrette Blount.

The hope in Patriots camp and among the fan base will no doubt be that one of the rookie receivers can emerge as a starter in two-wide receiver sets. The team was wise to double up on the position, as that has worked in years past.

In 2010, New England drafted Gronkowski and Hernandez in the same class — both worked out. In 2011, the Patriots took Ridley and Vereen, and while Ridley has been the better player so far, Vereen is expected to take Danny Woodhead‘s role and run with it this season. In 2012, Belichick grabbed Chandler Jones in the first round and Jake Bequette in the third at defensive end. Jones has emerged, while Bequette barely played.

Now, as many predicted the Patriots would do, the team took Dobson and Boyce in the same class with the hope that one of them will break the curse of the highly drafted Belichick wide receiver. If not, the team will just have to put the best 11 players on the field, and if that means sticking Marcus Cannon at wide receiver? Well, let’s not get too crazy.

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