The New England Patriots’ offense, as a whole, will look far different in 2020. Its wide receiver corps will not.
And so far, through a week of training camp, that’s not a positive takeaway.
The Patriots almost entirely ignored their wide receiver need this offseason, instead hoping N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu would make major strides over the offseason. They signed Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals castoff Damiere Byrd then added some intriguing undrafted free agents at the position, passing on one of the most talented wide receiver draft classes in recent memory.
The results, so far, are not pretty, and that should be concerning for a team that has scrambled to assemble a wide receiver corps over the last three seasons.
It didn’t matter in 2018 that the Patriots got so desperate for a wideout that they traded for Josh Gordon, because Tom Brady was at the helm, and he could overcome the deficiency. They won Super Bowl LIII. It was an issue, however, in 2019 when Phillip Dorsett, now a member of the Seattle Seahawks, was second at the position with just 29 catches for 397 yards and five touchdowns. Outside of Julian Edelman, no wide receiver started more than six games for the Patriots last season as they rifled through contributors.
Perhaps players like Sanu and Harry will see more success with prospective starter Cam Newton than they did with Brady. But the wide receiver corps isn’t off to a hot start in training camp so far this summer. And a projected starting unit of Edelman, Sanu and Harry seriously lacks speed. A player like Byrd has the juice to take the top off of a defense, but he’s not necessarily one of the team’s best receivers.
Here’s our best take on each player in the group:
Julian Edelman: He’s still far and away the best wide receiver in Patriots training camp. The problem with Edelman is always durability. He plays so damn hard that he’s going to get banged up. He somehow played all 16 games last season and had one of the best years of his career. But he also caught just 13 passes for 137 yards over his last four games of the season, including the Patriots’ wild-card round loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Mohamed Sanu: If we’re being completely, brutally honest, then Sanu has appeared a tick slow in training camp. It’s unclear if Sanu’s lack of speed is related to the ankle surgery he underwent this offseason or if that’s just his pace at this juncture in his career. He’s still a technically proficient receiver, but he won’t gain much separation.
N’Keal Harry: Harry took a major step forward Monday when he made three highlight plays. He caught a back-shoulder fade in 1-on-1s over Joejuan Williams then snagged touchdowns on fade and slant routes over cornerback JC Jackson. That was after Harry missed three practices late last week. As a 2019 first-round pick, he’s the wide receiver on the Patriots’ roster with the highest ceiling, but he needs to keep progressing and stop getting injured. Harry caught just 12 passes for 105 yards with two touchdowns last season. He has the talent to be a No. 1, but he’ll have to make a major jump to play that way this season.
Damiere Byrd: Byrd can add a turbo boost into the Patriots’ offense with his speed, and he’s had some success on deep balls this summer. But overall, his performance has been spotty, and he struggles with contact downfield because of his thin frame. He’s probably best utilized as a situational player.
Gunner Olszewski: He’s playing like the second-best receiver in camp, but that’s more an indictment of this group’s lack of standout performances than it is a vote of confidence in the former Division II cornerback. He’s quick off of the line of scrimmage, displays short-area quickness, bulked up over the offseason and has shown some positional versatility to play outside and inside. In that regard, he’s closer to Edelman than a Wes Welker- or Danny Amendola-type player. He’s also been the Patriots’ most consistent punt returner. He’s had some issues with drops and fumbles on offense, and he’s not winning a ton of contested targets, but imperfections are to be expected from the undersized wideout. He still has plenty of upside.
Jakobi Meyers: It’s been a tough camp for Meyers who has been limited in recent sessions. Even before he began sitting out of drills, Meyers was struggling to stand out from the group. His standing on the roster is surprisingly uncertain at this point.
Devin Ross: Ross has seen some standout moments, but he’s still a longshot for the team. His get-off at the line of scrimmage is pretty, but he’s undersized and isn’t a burner.
Isaiah Zuber: The undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State and Kansas State has had plenty of chances because of the injuries at the position. He’s dropped too many passes and has failed to set himself apart.
Will Hastings: Hastings has been limited since the start of training camp, which is unfortunate, because he’s an intriguing slot option with impressive quicks. The Patriots might be hiding him to a certain extent in an attempt to stash him on the practice squad.
Jeff Thomas: Speaking of which, Thomas also has barely been spotted at practice this summer. Like Hastings, Thomas is undersized but exciting with a high ceiling. It would have been nice to see him show off his big-play ability this summer, but the offseason is truncated and time is running out.
If we had to guess right now, then Edelman, Sanu, Harry, Byrd, Olszewksi and maybe Meyers will make the team. But that’s only really because there’s no other competition. The Patriots would have benefitted from having Marqise Lee in camp, but he opted out for the season. With a full offseason, perhaps Thomas or Hastings would have been able to contribute, but that looks unlikely at this point.
Maybe this group of receivers can experience far greater success with Newton under center than they did with Brady. Maybe he’ll be less demanding and more patient. But players will have to show some major progression once the season begins.
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