Patriots Positional Preview: Biggest Questions Facing New England’s Wideouts

As the calendar flips to June and the (expected) start of Patriots training camp draws closer, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s 90-man roster. 

Next up: the wide receivers.

POSITION GROUP BREAKDOWN
Roster locks: Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Matthew Slater (special teams)
Near locks: Jakobi Meyers, Mohamed Sanu
On the bubble: Damiere Byrd, Will Hastings, Marqise Lee, Gunner Olszewski, Jeff Thomas, Isaiah Zuber
Long shots: Quincy Adeboyejo, Sean Riley, Devin Ross

MOST TO PROVE
N’Keal Harry

Harry arrived in New England with lofty expectations as the 32nd overall pick, but a preseason injury and route-running deficiencies limited him to seven games, 12 catches and a handful of truly impressive highlights. Now in Year 2, the physically imposing Arizona State product will need to prove he can both stay healthy and develop into a reliable offensive weapon rather than one who only provides the occasional splash play.

Harry has spent the offseason working with a footwork coach to reshape his playing style and increase his mobility. He’ll be counted on in an offense that lacked consistent pass-catching options outside of Edelman and running back James White last season (and, of course, will be integrating a new quarterback this fall).

POTENTIAL SLEEPER
Will Hastings

The 34-year-old Edelman won’t be around forever. Could Hastings, an undrafted rookie, be his slot successor? The undersized Auburn product boasts Edelman’s elite quickness (6.55-second three-cone drill, 4.03-second short shuttle at his pro day) and the added benefit of being a former teammate and close friend of Jarrett Stidham, the favorite to replace Tom Brady behind center this season.

Thomas is another undrafted receiver with intriguing potential. One of the nation’s top wideout recruits out of high school, he showed electric playmaking ability at Miami — both on offense and in the return game — but also lacked focus and clashed with multiple coaching regimes. Thomas has the highest ceiling of any Patriots UDFA but must prove he can handle New England’s strict culture.

BY THE NUMBERS
100 for 1,117: The number of catches and receiving yards Edelman tallied last season despite playing much of the year with multiple injuries. The latter represented a career high for the veteran, who also led the team with six touchdown receptions. No other Patriots wideout had more than 29 catches or 397 receiving yards in 2019 (Phillip Dorsett, now with Seattle).

Two: The number of receptions Harry recorded (on seven targets) in his postseason debut. He finished with 21 receiving yards, and the Patriots lost to the Tennessee Titans 20-13, ending their season. All told, including playoffs, Harry caught just 14 of the 31 passes thrown his way as a rookie, with 14 of those targets (and just five catches) coming over his final two games.

One: The number of Patriots receivers who fully participated in every practice from the start of training camp through the 2019 season. That player was Meyers, who made the team as an undrafted rookie and for much of the year was New England’s second-most reliable wideout behind Edelman. He finished with 26 catches on 41 targets for 359 yards and has the potential to take on an even larger role as an NFL sophomore.

More Patriots: Previewing New England’s Quarterback Competition

THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. What impact will the QB change have? It’s unrealistic to expect Tom Brady’s replacement — be it Stidham or veteran Brian Hoyer — to be better than Brady this season. With TB12 heading to Tampa Bay and only Hoyer and a couple of undrafted QBs coming aboard, the Patriots undeniably got weaker at the game’s most important position this offseason, at least in the short term. But the switch could have some positive consequences, especially for New England’s younger receivers.

For years, the Patriots’ offense has been notoriously difficult to learn and Brady’s trust exceedingly difficult to gain for wideouts without at least a few years of NFL experience. Jelling with Stidham or Hoyer (likely the former) shouldn’t be as arduous, especially if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels scales back or simplifies his playbook to ease the transition. Stidham and Meyers, in particular, also showed great chemistry during last year’s training camp and preseason.

It will be worth monitoring, though, how Edelman adjusts to his new signal-caller after being Brady’s favorite target for the last half-dozen seasons.

2. Can Mohamed Sanu bounce back? Sanu was supposed to be an ideal running mate for Edelman — a smart, experienced pass-catcher who ran good routes, had soft hands, could create separation and had been consistently productive over several seasons in multiple offenses. But he went down with an ankle injury three weeks into his Patriots tenure and was never the same, managing a meager 13 catches on 29 targets for 110 yards and no touchdowns over his final seven games, including playoffs.

That ankle injury ultimately required offseason surgery. If Sanu can come back healthy and return to the level he played at during his time with the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons, he’ll be an asset for New England’s new-look offense. But if he struggles once the Patriots return to the practice field, the 30-year-old could find himself on the chopping block, as cutting him would free up $6.5 million in salary cap space.

3. Which newcomers will stick? As they did with the quarterback position, the Patriots avoided marquee names when adding to their receiving corps this offseason. No big-ticket free agents. No dips into this year’s historically deep draft class.

Their additions were Byrd, a speed merchant who set career highs with 32 catches for 359 yards in 2019; Lee, the once-productive ex-Jaguar who missed most of last season and all of the previous one with serious injuries; and four UDFAs: Hastings, Thomas, Zuber and Riley. None of the six will be guaranteed a roster spot entering training camp.

Hastings and Thomas are the most interesting members of that undrafted crop, but Zuber received more guaranteed money than them and Riley combined ($100,000, tied for third-most among all 2020 Patriots UDFAs). Hastings got $57,500 guaranteed, Riley $15,000 and Thomas $2,500. At least one undrafted rookie has made the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster in each of the last 16 seasons.

Byrd, Lee, Thomas, Zuber and Riley all have kick and/or punt return experience, as well. Olszewski was New England’s top punt returner in 2019 — and performed well in that role until injuries ended his season in November — while running back Brandon Bolden handled kickoff returns.

More positional previews: Quarterbacks

More Patriots: Latest 53-Man Roster Projection

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