There are two ways to look at the New England Patriots’ wide receiver situation, and they’re on entirely different ends of the spectrum.
If Julian Edelman stays healthy, and if rookie N’Keal Harry can contribute right away, and if Demaryius Thomas recovers quickly from his torn Achilles, and if Josh Gordon’s suspension is lifted and can stay clean, and if Phillip Dorsett can take another leap from last season, then this could be one of the best wide receiver corps in the NFL.
That’s a lot of ifs.
The other way to look at it? Edelman will be 33 years old this season. Only one Patriots rookie wide receiver in the Bill Belichick era has gained over 500 receiving yards in a season. Thomas already looked like he lost a step last season before tearing his Achilles. There’s no telling when Gordon will be reinstated, and even when he is, there’s no guarantee he’ll stay on the right path. Dorsett couldn’t pass Chris Hogan on the depth chart last season — why should we expect this year to be any different for him?
Here’s how we see the Patriots’ current wide receiver picture:
Roster locks: Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Matthew Slater
On the bubble: Phillip Dorsett, Bruce Ellington, Maurice Harris, Demaryius Thomas
Practice squad candidates: Braxton Berrios, Ryan Davis, Jakobi Meyers, Damoun Patterson, Xavier Ubosi
Suspended: Josh Gordon
The Patriots will probably need some contributions from receivers other than Edelman, Harry, Dorsett, Thomas and Gordon. There is some potential in this group.
Ellington has been injury prone throughout his NFL career, but former Patriots exec Mike Lombardi apparently loves the guy.
Here’s what Lombardi wrote about Ellington last month:
“Ellington has the talent to be as good as any slot receiver to suit up for the Pats, but his lack of durability has curtailed his promising career,” Lombardi wrote. “He was exceptional when he was on the field last year in Houston, but his constant hamstring problems returned, and the Texans sent him to injured reserve. Are the Pats counting on Ellington to solve the need? Doubtful, in part because we all know that past performance predicts future achievement. They have to be somewhat hopeful, though, and if Ellington can stay on the field for more than 12 games, no one will be asking why they couldn’t land Humphries. It’s a big if, though.”
Harris is a big target at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. Berrios is fast, quick and agile and could potentially be next in line for the Patriots’ slot role. Davis is another undersized slot guy who can make some guys miss after the tackle. Meyers, a converted quarterback, was a big, productive slot in college who could be converted into an outside receiver in New England’s offense. Patterson is another taller receiver with some speed to burn. Ubosi is a massive outside receiver who was one of the best deep threats in college football last season.
The key to the Patriots’ receiving corps will be Harry. If he can contribute right away and buck the trend of rookie receivers struggling to pick up the Patriots’ offense, then New England’s pass-catchers will start to round into shape. He’s best on contested targets and picking up yards after the catch. The Patriots could ease him into the offense with screens, slants and fades.
Thomas is another key. If that Achilles heals up by the start of the season, then he adds a somewhat dependable veteran presence to this group. If it doesn’t, then he could start the season on the physically unable to perform list, and the Patriots wouldn’t see him take the field until midseason.
It’s best not to depend on Gordon. If the Patriots get anything out of him, look at it as a plus.
And while Dorsett might not be a roster lock, he’s very close to it. It’s not ideal to head into the season with Dorsett as your No. 2 receiver, but the Patriots could get by.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Patriots add another veteran wide receiver to this group, although they could probably get by without one.