By severing ties with half of last year’s group of wide receivers, Bill Belichick essentially admitted that the Patriots won Super Bowl LIII in spite of an underwhelming corps of pass catches, not because of it.
Julian Edelman aside, the group left standing by the end of the season was New England’s weakest output since 2006, when Reche Caldwell was the team’s No. 1 receiver. Imagine that, the difference between Edelman and Caldwell was a Super Bowl title and a painful loss in the AFC Championship Game.
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Maintaining the status quo simply wasn’t an option this off-season, which is why the Patriots allowed Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson to walk away and brought back Phillip Dorsett on only a one-year deal.
You can take issue with the approach, but the new stable of wide receivers available for Tom Brady is unquestionably more talented at this juncture than at any point in 2018.
In addition to Edelman – the third-oldest wide receiver in the NFL, at 33 – and Dorsett, the Patriots boast veterans Demaryius Thomas and Josh Gordon, as well as rookies Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski and eventually, N’Keal Harry.
Edelman, for one, could hardly hide his excitement on Friday on the addition of Thomas and the return from suspension for Gordon.
Thomas, entering his 10th NFL season, was drafted by the Denver Broncos with a pick the Patriots originally owned. After trading back and ultimately dealing the pick that turned into Dez Bryant as well, New England wound up with Devin McCourty, Aaron Hernandez and Taylor Price in the 2010 draft instead of Thomas.
Thomas has had a very good career in the meantime, amassing 9,330 yards receiving on 688 catches and 62 touchdowns. He spent his entire career with the Broncos before being dealt to the Texans last October, where he ultimately tore his Achilles heel that forced him to the PUP list until late in training camp.
“Any time you have someone like that in your room, it’s awesome,” Edelman said of Thomas. “You’ve got younger guys who get to see how he prepares, and how a professional is supposed to look.”
The return of Gordon, as always, comes with boom-or-bust potential few players in the NFL have ever been capable of. When fully committed, he’s a game-changing receiver the Patriots haven’t had since Randy Moss in 2007.
Gordon, who’s been suspended five times in his NFL career, released a statement on his Twitter page earlier Friday stating that he’ll no longer be discussing the details of his past and will be focusing on the present and getting better every day.
“I don’t want to jinx him or anything, but he’s a good football player,” Edelman said of Gordon. “The more good football players you have on your unit, the better the unit can be.”
True, the Patriots won the Super Bowl without either Thomas or Gordon on the roster last year. That approach, simply put, wasn’t attainable, nor was committing more money and years to Hogan and Patterson – players who are representative NFL receivers, but who had clearly reached their ceilings in Foxboro.
It’s still too soon to tell what preseason darling Jakobi Meyers, the undrafted free agent out of North Carolina State, may turn into. After popping on the field in exhibition contests the way so few young Patriot receivers had before, however, there’s upside in letting him grow into a role that Hogan or Patterson seemed to have outgrown.
Meyers played some out of the slot in college and just so happens to be in position to continue learning from one of the best to ever do it in Edelman.
The same goes for Olszewski and Harry, regardless of their exact roles on the offense.
“Julian’s got such a competitive attitude that I think it just rubs off on everybody,” Belichick said. “Everybody sees how hard he works, how competitive he is, and it makes you want to do the same.”
A great group of receivers has guaranteed New England nothing in the past, and to be clear, this group is still a long way from what would be considered “great” in the first place.
Without Rob Gronkowski to lessen the burden at tight end, however, the Patriots are going to need contributions from their entire depth chart at wide receiver to get back to the Super Bowl for a fourth straight season.
It’s hardly a strength at the moment, but Belichick has allowed for the possibility for the group to blossom into one with the way it looks now that the 53-man roster has been assembled.