The New England Patriots spent the last eight months throwing talented wide receivers at a wall hoping they would stick (figuratively, of course). Few have so far.
The Patriots signed and released receivers Kenny Britt, Jordan Matthews and Eric Decker. They also cut Malcolm Mitchell over a knee injury that just wouldn’t heal. Out of all of their receiver additions since December, it seems only Cordarrelle Patterson will make the team after Saturday’s roster cuts. And because so many receivers have failed to stay in New England, they might head into the 2018 season with just three or four full-time receivers.
We had Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Patterson, Riley McCarron and special-teamer Matthew Slater making the Patriots in our latest 53-man roster projection while Julian Edelman serves a four-game suspension. And McCarron was a bit of a stretch who might only serve as a punt returner. If a fifth receiver makes the Patriots, it’s just as likely that player isn’t even on the team yet. They could still pick up a wideout off the waiver wire or through a trade. (Golden Tate, anyone?)
But let’s assume for a second New England doesn’t add another receiver. (Even if the team does sign, claim or trade a wideout, he might not be ready to contribute fully early in the season.)
What would an offense with just three full-time receivers in Hogan, Dorsett and Patterson look like?
Hogan and tight end Rob Gronkowski each would play about 90 percent of offensive snaps. We’ll give Dorsett another 75 percent. History suggests running back James White will play about 40 percent of snaps. Assuming running back Rex Burkhead also is healthy, he could play another 40 percent of snaps.
Since teams deploy five skill-position players per snap, our total percentage needs to equal 500. We’re at 335 so far. (If this article is starting to read like Scott Steiner’s math promo, my apologies.)
So, who gets the other 165 percent? James Develin generally plays around 30 percent of offensive snaps. The Patriots likely will run some two-running back sets with traditional ball-carriers, so that position’s total snaps will equal over 100 percent. If Burkhead and White are penciled in for a combined 80 percent, then a combination of rookie Sony Michel, Brandon Bolden and a fifth running back — whether that’s Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee or someone else — would equal about 25 percent.
That leaves us with another 110 percent. Cordarrelle Patterson has averaged around 40 percent of offensive snaps per season in his career. As a potential gadget player in New England’s offense, that seems fair. That leaves 70 percent of snaps for tight ends Jacob Hollister and Dwayne Allen. We like what Hollister showed in training camp, so let’s give him 40 percent and Allen 30.
Here’s everyone’s totals (hopefully the math checks out):
Hogan: 90 percent
Gronkowski: 90 percent
Dorsett: 75 percent
White: 40 percent
Burkhead 40 percent
Patterson: 40 percent
Hollister 40 percent
Develin: 30 percent
Allen: 30 percent
Other RBs: 25 percent
Of course, as players shine or struggle, those percentages could rise or fall. It’s also not accounting for injuries. If, say, Burkhead’s injury lingers, then his percentage could drop and those of White and the other RBs would rise. And if Dorsett or Patterson don’t live up to expectations, then we could see more two-running back or tight end sets. And if Hollister doesn’t live up to his potential, then we’ll likely see more of Allen as a blocking tight end.
All of this is to say the Patriots could survive with just three full-time wide receivers for four weeks. Burkhead, White, Michel, Hill, Hollister and Allen all can catch passes. And White, Burkhead, Hollister and Gronkowski all could align in the slot or split out outside. We essentially have the Patriots splitting their time between three-receiver, two-tight end and two-running back sets. Opposing defenses know how to align against three- or four-receiver sets. They run nickel and dime. But deciding how to defend two-tight end or two-running back sets takes more thought.
“It’s hard to defend any offense in this league,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “Every team has good players. Every team has schemes that complement the players they put on the field, whatever the combination of players is and you have to decide, based on what you have, how you want to defend it, how you want to match up against it personnel-wise and what you want to call when you’re in those personnel groups. You might have one personnel group with one set of calls, a different personnel group with a different set of calls.”
Hollister can move like a receiver, but he’s a better blocker. So, do defenses come out in base and face a potential mismatch in coverage while protecting against the run? Or do they come out in nickel and take their chances New England is planning to throw?
What about when White and Burkhead share the field? Nickel might be too light against the run, but White and Burkhead would be mismatches against linebackers in coverage.
And what if the Patriots put White, Burkhead, Gronkowski, another tight end and one wide receiver on the field? They ran two such plays from 22 personnel last season and averaged 32.5 yards per play. The grouping produced a 43-yard catch by Brandin Cooks and 22-yard run by Burkhead.
The Patriots would be in better shape if Britt, Matthews, Decker or even Mitchell worked out. They would strengthen their offense if they could acquire a receiver to push Dorsett down the depth chart. But if they don’t? They’ll still tread water until Edelman returns because of all of the other receiving threats on their roster. The less three-receiver sets the Patriots run, the more unpredictable they’ll become.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images