FOXBORO, Mass. — Quick: Name the first New England Patriots wide receiver who comes to mind.
No matter which one you picked, he probably wasn’t participating in Wednesday’s practice.
Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Nate Washington and Keshawn Martin all sat out the team’s sixth training camp session, with Martin remaining away from the field and the four others present but not wearing pads.
Those absences left DeAndre Carter, Chris Harper, Aaron Dobson, Devin Lucien, Malcolm Mitchell and special teamer Matthew Slater as New England’s only active wideouts. Mitchell and Slater are all but guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster, and Lucien more than likely is bound for the practice squad, making Wednesday an excellent chance for Carter, Harper and Dobson to prove themselves.
“It’s extremely competitive,” Harper said after the practice. “… It’s really unfortunate for the guys that aren’t out here, but I think that for the guys that are out here, it gives us a huge opportunity to show what we have and to continue competing with the other receivers that are left out there.”
Harper and Carter have had similar NFL trajectories to this point, with both going undrafted in 2015 and both logging multiple practice squad stints last season. Harper has one NFL catch to his credit, while Carter has yet to appear in his first regular-season game.
Despite their limited experience, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had high praise for both young receivers Wednesday, commenting on the 5-foot-8 Carter’s impressive “playing strength” and calling Harper perhaps the most improved player in camp.
“(Harper) had a real good spring, and he’s built on that here in training camp,” Belichick said. “(He) shows good quickness, he’s caught the ball well. He’s doing well, but he has come a long way. He has probably made as much progress as any player has in the last calendar year, maybe a little more than that going back to last spring. But yeah, he has come a long way.”
Harper, who is dueling with the likes of Carter, Dobson, Martin and Washington for the Patriots’ fifth and final receiver spot, still has a long way to go. He admitted he still doesn’t have a firm grasp on New England’s complex offense and said he spent the offseason working on his conditioning, which was not up to snuff during his rookie campaign. He said Belichick’s words of encouragement will only give him more motivation to improve.
For Carter, who arrived in New England as a practice squad signee in December, the quest for improvement has involved taking cues from Amendola, Edelman and former Patriots receiver Wes Welker, all of whom have enjoyed NFL success despite lacking prototypical size.
“One of the first thing I did when I got here was look at those guys’ film, including Wes,” Carter said. “He’s kind of one of the guys that paved the way for smaller guys in this league. And being in the same room as Danny and Jules has definitely helped me, being able to use them and pick their brains about the position and how to be successful.”
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images