Patriots’ Wide Receivers Are Unit to Watch in Training Camp, As Position Became More Uncertain After OTAs, Minicamp

Aaron Dobson, Ben BartholomewThe first Patriots training camp practice starts in 15 days, 19 hours, 31 minutes and 58 seconds. And yes, I’m counting. Because life without football is no fun.

That’s when Patriots fans and media alike can crowd themselves near the Patriots’ practice field to watch the team take some (semi) meaningful reps. By that time, most players should be over their offseason injuries, they should have a solid grasp of the playbook and, hopefully, they’ll have numbers on their chests and backs, unlike at OTAs and minicamp. (I just needed to get that complaint in one more time.)

There are plenty of positions to watch this year in Foxboro, but few will pique the interest of New Englanders more than the wide receivers. The position was already surrounded with uncertainty after the team parted ways with Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch, but they at least had a safety net in Aaron Hernandez, whom the team could have used in the slot or in the “X” role in a pinch. In case you missed it, Hernandez is not on the team anymore — something about breaking team rules or something.

So now the team has to find two or three worthy players out of Kamar Aiken, Danny Amendola, Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Mark Harrison, Lavelle Hawkins, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, Matthew Slater and Kenbrell Thompkins, a group that doesn’t exactly invite confidence. Five or six will make the team, and if there was optimism heading into OTAs and minicamp, that went away after seeing the group’s collective performance.

At this point, the hierarchy of the position goes Amendola, then everyone else. Dobson didn’t emerge in OTAs as it was hoped, and then he was hurt for minicamp. Edelman, Boyce and Harrison were hurt for both offseason programs. Jones dealt with some injuries and, if anything, Aiken, Hawkins, Jenkins and Thompkins impressed the most, but those were also the four wide receivers that were the least intriguing coming into the offseason.

So every player other than Amendola will be entering training camp on an even playing field. Jenkins will likely start out the sessions as the No. 2 receiver, but despite some top-tier smarts and reliable hands, there’s a reason his signing didn’t generate many waves (other than Molasses Mike jokes. Because he’s slow ha ha ehhh) in the NFL community. He’s a No. 2 receiver only by need, not design.

Most hoped that either Dobson, Boyce or Jones would emerge during the offseason programs. And while a couple of highlight catches set Dobson apart positively, some easy drops had the opposite effect. It’s still possible that Dobson takes the “X” receiver role during training camp, but there’s a reason hopes aren’t quite as high as they were immediately after he was drafted.

Boyce is a complete unknown at this point. He hurt his foot during the predraft process and spent most of the spring on a stationary bike, roaming the sidelines or in the practice bubble. Boyce is known for his intelligence, and his athleticism is off the charts. No one emerging at the No. 2 wide receiver spot could bode well for the TCU product this summer. He has the ability to be more than a slot or “Z” receiver, and while he may not have the prototypical size of an “X” guy at 5-foot-11, 206 pounds, neither did Lloyd, who was just one inch shorter and slighter.

Jones never really stood out positively or negatively during OTAs and was limited during minicamp. Expectations may have been too high for Jones after he never really emerged as anything more than a possession receiver in Buffalo. He may be better suited for the “Z” role when the Patriots have three wide receivers on the field.

Aiken, Thompkins and Harrison (when he comes back from a foot injury) are also possibilities for the role across from Amendola, but that’s digging pretty deep to fill the position. Aiken has been in the league for two seasons and hasn’t caught a pass yet, and Thompkins and Harrison are undrafted rookies.

The player with the best shot at opening the season in September as the No. 2 receiver in the “X” role right now is Jenkins, but he’s a known entity, and if that’s the case, the Patriots would be opening the season with a bottom 10 group of starters at wide receiver, only slightly better than the likes of the Jets, Raiders, Redskins and Browns.

The team has plenty of depth in the slot, with Edelman, Hawkins and possibly Boyce behind Amendola, but it’s arguable that New England has no depth at the “X”, since there are no proven commodities behind Jenkins.

It’s almost certain that Dobson and Boyce will make the team, but if neither shows enough to start over Jenkins, it could be a disaster if they’re asked to play heavy snaps if the potential starter goes down with an injury. The team likely won’t carry more than six receivers, and Amendola, Edelman and Slater would probably take the other three slots. We’ve mentioned the possibility of Shane Vereen playing some wide receiver, but he’ll be busy with other roles and would never take on a full share as an outside receiver.

So the “X” wide receiver position is looking like it will be boom or boring for 2013. If Dobson or Boyce can prove they can start as rookies, this will be a much more intriguing group. But if they can’t, it looks like it will be Amendola and Jenkins, and the team will be heavily depending on the tight ends and running backs.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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