When you think of Josh Gordon, his physical tools immediately come to mind. The New England Patriots wide receiver has an extremely rare combination of size, strength, speed, length and agility.
But Gordon’s savvy is what truly sets him apart. He doesn’t just use his physical tools to get open and bully defensive backs. He’s also a shrewd zone beater.
We charted every one of Gordon’s targets last season as research for this article.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was 20-of-39 for 315 yards throwing to Gordon against man coverage last season. He was 20-of-29 for 405 yards with three touchdowns against zone.
Brady and Gordon weren’t always on the same page last season, but for having not practiced together until Week 3 of the regular season, their chemistry was impressive. Gordon was adept at slowing or sitting down in open pockets of a zone.
The Patriots’ offense is complex for receivers because it forces them to read a defense and adjust their route accordingly. Gordon’s success against zone shows that wasn’t difficult for him. And a Patriots wide receiver has to read and react quickly to a defense or else they’ll never earn Brady’s trust.
And while Gordon didn’t have as much success against man coverages, opposing defenses clearly still need to respect those physical tools we mentioned earlier.
Otherwise, this happens:
And if one guy is beaten by Gordon, then there’s a decent chance he’ll keep rumbling down the field. Only two wide receivers last season, Quincy Enunwa and D.J. Moore, had at least 60 targets and more yards after catch per reception than Gordon. With the Patriots, Gordon averaged 6.7 yards after catch per reception.
Gordon was conditionally reinstated to the NFL on Saturday, though he’s starting the summer on the non-football injury list. If the Patriots want to get Gordon involved immediately, it should come on inside routes.
Brady was 25-of-31 for 486 yards with three touchdowns while targeting Gordon on slants and digs. One of those touchdowns and 34 of those yards came on a slant that turned into scramble drill, however.
Brady didn’t have nearly as much success hitting Gordon on a “9” route. He was just 3-of-15 targeting Gordon on go’s, fades and seams. Brady also was 0-for-1 with Gordon running a post.
The Patriots could fill the void left by retired tight end Rob Gronkowski by having Gordon run more seam routes out of the slot, however. Gordon looked Gronk-esque on this play.
Finally, Brady was 4-of-4 for 20 yards hitting Gordon on screens, 7-of-14 for 105 yards on curls and comebacks and 1-of-3 for 17 yards on out routes.
Gordon did most of his work out of the “X” outside wide receiver spot, though he did catch 5-of-6 passes for 75 yards out of the slot. Pro Football Focus charted Gordon for five total drops last season.
If Gordon is healthy and clear-minded, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be a starting wide receiver in the Patriots’ offense across from Julian Edelman. The Patriots likely will primarily work out of three-receiver sets this season, so the biggest question is who that third starter will be between Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry. Demaryius Thomas also could be in that mix if he comes off of the physically unable to perform list before the season begins.
Meyers has been most impressive this summer, but he’s an undrafted free agent. One would assume that the Patriots would want to give Harry, a rookie first-round pick, or Thomas, a former All-Pro, any possible chance to earn that role. Dorsett has been with the Patriots for the past two seasons and likely knows the offense better than his competition.
There’s also the issue of Gordon’s unreliability. He hasn’t played 16 straight games since he was a rookie as he’s dealt with substance-abuse and mental-health issues. He might begin the season as a starter, but there’s no guarantee he’ll maintain that role through December. Harry has a similar skill-set to Gordon and could be used in similar concepts.
The Patriots, however, have a serious weapon at their disposal as long as Gordon can stay on the field, After watching Gordon last season, Brady knows the big wideout can carve up a zone defense with quick in-patterns and break them off for long gains.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images