Patriots Mailbag: Honestly Assessing Depleted Receiving Corps

by Doug Kyed on Fri, Sep 7, 2018 at 8:00AM

It’s amazing how a Super Bowl loss can influence expectations for a new season.

Last offseason, after a Super Bowl win, we were trying to figure out whether the New England Patriots could go 19-0. This summer, with 30 NFL teams still envious of how far the Patriots’ 2017 playoff run, has been spent talking in-team turmoil, depleted receiving corps and draft failures while the team is still the favorite to win it all this season.

We give an honest look at the 2018 Patriots in this week’s mailbag.

Please give me your take on the present crop of receivers, including the tight ends. Better or worse talent than last year?
— @JavierDamien
Worse. Definitely worse when comparing Week 1 to Week 1. That could change when Julian Edelman returns from a four-game suspension in Week 5.

The 2017 Patriots had Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis and James White at running back, Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan at wide receiver and Dwayne Allen, Rob Gronkowski and Jacob Hollister at tight end.

You can cancel out Burkhead, White, Hogan, Allen and Gronkowski.

So, now you’re pitting 2017 Gillislee, Lewis, Amendola, Cooks, Dorsett and Hollister against 2018 Sony Michel, Jeremy Hill, Dorsett, Chad Hansen, Riley McCarron, Cordarrelle Patterson and Hollister.

You have to figure some improvement out of Dorsett and Hollister this season. But Gillislee, Lewis, Amendola and Cooks are better than Michel, Hill, Hansen, McCarron and Patterson. It might be a wash with a slight edge to 2017 when Edelman returns, but that heavily depends on Michel. Hill is better than Gillislee, and Edelman is more valuable than Cooks in the Patriots’ offense. Lewis and Amendola are significantly better than Michel, Hansen, McCarron and Patterson.

The Patriots’ 2018 receivers aren’t ideal, but they’ll more than get by with Gronkowski, Hogan, Burkhead, White, Dorsett, Patterson and Hollister all catching passes from quarterback Tom Brady. I don’t think the Patriots’ offensive weapons are bad at all once Edelman returns.

No one’s allowed to get hurt for at least four weeks.

Will Sony Michel play week 1
— @celticsin1
I wouldn’t play him. The Patriots can more than get by with White, Burkhead and Hill at running back. I wouldn’t play Michel while he’s still limited in practice. I’d let that knee heal as much as possible before he takes the field. There’s no need to rush him back given his reported medical history with those knees.

If/when Michel is active, do you see a personnel package where the Patriots put 3 RBs on the field (Michel, White, Burkhead)? #MailDoug
— @garylanglais

With Edelman out for the first four game do you believe that the team will use James White as a flex receiver? Maybe see a lot of 21 or 22 personnel with White in the slot?
— @KickRaeble

Can I get some stats on when Rex and Dion were on the field at the same time and see how that may translate to hill and Rex? Can you have both on the field at once if Rex is slot
— @DSpin4theWin
OK, guys. No offense, but let’s calm down on the multi-running back sets.

The Patriots lined up in a personnel package with two running backs — not a running back and a fullback — just 54 times last season. That means they used that grouping, with some combination of Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White, on just 5.04 percent of offensive plays. They never aligned with three running backs.

They used two-running back packages even less in the playoffs. The Patriots ran three plays with that personnel grouping, or on 1.41 percent of offensive plays.

It was effective, though. The Patriots gained 532 yards on those 54 plays during the regular season, averaging 9.9 yards per play. They gained 506 yards on 51 passing plays and 26 yards on three running plays.

The Patriots might run two-running back sets slightly more often during Edelman’s four-game suspension, but don’t expect it to be as common as three receivers, two tight ends or a running back and fullback.

So, no. I don’t expect to see James White or Rex Burkhead spending a lot of time in the slot. They might spend a little time in the slot, but they’re not wide receivers. They’re still running backs.

At this time last year, most pats fans expected the secondary to be elite. After the first 4 games, when everything was a mess, I heard some media ppl who saw practices say they knew it would be bad. How do you view the secondary now? Are we in for another bad surprise?
— @ChefdDds89
I certainly don’t think I was one of those reporters who said in hindsight that I knew the Patriots’ secondary would be bad. I thought they had elite potential with Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler at cornerback and Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon at safety. Then Gilmore started slow and Butler underperformed all year.

I don’t think this year’s group has as much upside as last year’s had before the season, but I think it can match or surpass last year’s actual play on the field. Eric Rowe had a standout preseason, and Gilmore should be better with a full year under his belt. The safeties are still the best three-man unit in the NFL.

Have the Patriots made Phillip Dorsett into the receiver he should be? Will he CATCH a lot of folks sleeping?
— @Matthew_Langa
Nice pun, Matthew! I predicted a career year from Dorsett in Thursday’s bold predictions. I doubt he’ll ever turn into a 1,000-yard receiver in New England, but I could see him churning out a David Givens-, David Patten-, Donte Stallworth- or Jabar Gaffney-esque season. I guess Brandon Lloyd and Brandon LaFell could fall into the same category.

Maybe Phillip should change his name to David or Brandon?

Dorsett certainly has the opportunity in front of him, and he’s just as talented as many of those receivers.

Who do you think Will start at linebacker Roberts or Bentley
— @Austinw7612
That’s a very good question. The easy way out is to say neither because the Patriots typically play with just two linebackers.

But I know what you’re asking: Who will be the third linebacker behind Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy?

I’d give the role to Ja’Whaun Bentley, as long as he wasn’t slowed down by the illness that limited him in practice Wednesday. The Patriots might as well see what they have in the rookie, since he had a strong summer in preseason and training camp. And if he struggles, then the Patriots can move on to Elandon Roberts.

Why doesn’t Bill pick up anyone with notable talent?
— @goodnow123
OK, so I don’t agree with this sentiment at all.

But.

The 2018 Patriots draft class has to be looked at as a pretty major disappointment so far, right? The Patriots went in with two first-round picks, two second-round picks and a third.

We all thought the Patriots would bring in players who could contribute right away. They traded the third for starting left tackle Trent Brown and a fifth-round pick that turned into Bentley, so that’s a win so far. But they took Isaiah Wynn 23rd overall, and he’s out for the season and wasn’t on schedule to start anyway. They grabbed Sony Michel, who had known knee issues, 31st overall, and he’s still dealing with a knee injury. Then they traded into 2019 and drafted Duke Dawson with the second-round picks. Dawson was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.

I can’t knock the Patriots for trading into the future or for the injuries to Wynn and Dawson; trading for an earlier future pick is smart and injuries are bad luck.

But it’s still disappointing at this stage. And who knows? Maybe Michel recovers quickly and becomes a 1,000-yard rusher. Maybe Dawson comes back at midseason and unseats Jonathan Jones as the starting slot cornerback. Maybe Ja’Whaun Bentley pushes his way into the Patriots’ starting two linebacker slots. Maybe Keion Crossen emerges as a starting cornerback.

It’s still early, but it’s been a rough start for a 2018 draft class that has five players on injured reserve in Wynn, Dawson, wide receiver Braxton Berrios, linebacker Christian Sam and tight end Ryan Izzo.

At the same time, it absolutely warrants mentioning that the Patriots are still Super Bowl favorites for reasons beyond Brady and Bill Belichick.

You might not like Belichick’s drafting methods, but he signs unheralded free agents like Burkhead, Hogan, Lawrence Guy and Patrick Chung. He swings trades, giving up very little, for players like Brown, Cordarrelle Patterson, Danny Shelton, Kyle Van Noy and Jason McCourty. He has tremendous success with undrafted free agents like Jacob Hollister, David Andrews, Adam Butler, Keionta Davis, Brandon King, JC Jackson and Jonathan Jones. He’s hit recently in the fourth round with James White, Shaq Mason, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise. And it’s not as if high picks haven’t worked out. They do still have Rob Gronkowski, Joe Thuney, Malcom Brown, Derek Rivers, Dont’a Hightower, Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty on their roster.

Could the Patriots have added more home-grown talent through the draft in recent years? Yes. But they’re still looking pretty good.

Let’s go rapid fire.

Are you ready?
— @bwompbwomp
For some football? Heck yeah! (Sorry for the coarse language.)

More catches in the first 4 weeks, Burkhead or White?
— @derek5280
White.

Prediction for the season?
— @TheDTSB
I always say 12-4. So, I’ll go out on a limb and say 12-4.

#maildoug What do you figure is the over/under on Brady TDs this year?
— @MrQuindazzi
The over/under on BetDSI (not an ad) is 30.5. I’d take the under. I think he throws exactly 30.

Will the Patriots make any moves at the WR spot before Sunday game #maildoug
— @BC101089
You asked this question before the Patriots signed Riley McCarron off the practice squad. I’m basically from the future telling you they will. Or did. Or something.

I read where Cleveland might look at Dez after week one because it’s not a guaranteed contract… Why don’t the Pats do the same?
— @VinceTuhlf
Money, assuming Dez Bryant wants more than the minimum.

Realistic expectations of the season? Superbowl? AFC championship game? Or wild card?
— @Ch3t8n
The Patriots are currently the favorites to win the Super Bowl. So, that.

do you think the pats sign kendall wright
— @michaelis4real
I do not.

Is pop punk dead
— @Kyle_Burlingame
It kind of is to me, though I do still like The Wonder Years. Do The Menzingers count as pop punk? I like them too. I mostly stopped listening to new pop punk bands around 2003 or 2004. I still listen to the old stuff, though.

While we’re on the subject, it feels crazy to write this in 2018, but the new MXPX album is pretty good. And that’s coming from someone who hasn’t liked an MXPX full length in 18 years. (That just made me feel really old.)

Who do you think will get the most touches (WRs) until Edleman return?
— @swagg_z0mbie
Hogan.

Rex Burkhead outlook week 1
— @fantasyFB07
He’s good to go. Expect him to be the Patriots’ top ball-carrier in Week 1.

Why am I the only one that thinks Patterson have a 12+ touchdown season?
— @mattdacosta6
Maybe because he has 18 career touchdowns in five seasons?

Do you prefer nacho cheese Doritos or cool ranch Doritos
— @k_romano8
I’m glad you asked, Kelly. I’d pick nacho cheese Doritos over cool ranch, but I prefer spicy sweet chili or spicy nacho.

#MailDoug better game day snack nachos or wings?
— @Sauceco
Wings.

Check out this week’s full mailbag video below.

Thumbnail photo via Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports Images