Back in the spring, wide receiver looked like it would be a position of strength for the New England Patriots. At various points during the offseason and preseason, Tom Brady had a returning 1,000-yard receiver (Brandin Cooks), the Eagles’ No. 1 wideout in 2015 and 2016 (Jordan Matthews), a useful, versatile veteran starter who saves his best work for the postseason (Danny Amendola), a rising young homegrown talent who had six receptions for 70 yards in a historic Super Bowl win (Malcolm Mitchell), and a three-time 1,000-yard receiver (Eric Decker).
Now, with just one week to go before the regular season starts, he’ll have none of those contributors.
Cooks was traded for the first-round pick that became Isaiah Wynn, a versatile offensive lineman who won’t be able to contribute in 2018 after suffering a torn Achilles in the preseason. Matthews injured his hamstring and was released. Mitchell was unable to get healthy after missing all of 2017 and was also released. Amendola left to sign an extremely Dolphins-esque contract (two years, $12 million!). Decker decided to retire rather than get cut.
Even Julian Edelman, the Pro Bowl receiver who’s been Brady’s slot safety valve, will miss four games to start the season after violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. When Week 1 rolls around, New England’s two-deep at wide receiver could look something like this:
The Patriots’ potential WR depth chart, Weeks 1-4
|Chris Hogan||34 rec, 439 yards, 5 TDs|
|Phillip Dorsett||12 rec, 194 yards, 0 TDs|
|Cordarrelle Patterson||31 rec, 309 yards, 0 TDs|
So, that’s a dangerous deep threat who only played nine games last season, a former first-round pick on whom the Colts gave up in 2017, a special teams wizard who has never recorded more than 500 receiving yards in a season, and an undrafted free agent from 2017 whose most productive college season topped out at 42 receptions.
That’s bad! But if the Patriots are panicking, they certainly aren’t showing it — probably because Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have been in this situation before.
The Patriots have been successful with worse receivers than this
In the mid- to late-2000s, one criticism that followed New England from season to season was whether or not the club was wasting Brady’s prime — a quaint idea from a simpler time before the NFL realized Brady refuses to age like a normal human being. There’s no better example of that than 2006, when the Pats’ top two wideouts were Reche Caldwell and a 35-year-old Troy Brown, a player who, two years earlier, was splitting his time between the slot and the defensive secondary. The third- and fourth- most accomplished wide receivers that year were Doug Gabriel, who was cut in December, and Chad Jackson — a former second-rounder who finished his NFL career with 14 receptions.
That’s an abjectly terrible depth chart, but it didn’t stop the Patriots from boasting a top-10 scoring offense. Brady, who wasn’t yet all-caps TOM BRADY, still managed to throw for 3,500 yards and 24 touchdowns to go with a top-10 passer rating and lead the Patriots to the AFC title game. How did he do it? With a steady diet of passes to his tight ends and tailbacks.
Running back Kevin Faulk saw his carries evaporate thanks to the combination of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney in the backfield, but still managed to haul in 43 passes despite primarily seeing the field in obvious passing situations. Tight ends Ben Watson, Daniel Graham, and David Thomas combined for more than 1,000 yards through the air. Non-wideouts made up 52 percent of the team’s passing output that fall. For comparison’s sake, one year later with Randy Moss and Wes Welker in tow to prop up one of the league’s greatest-ever offenses, that share dropped to 27 percent.
That’s a formula the 2018 version of the team is built to follow to a T. New England is stocked with pass catchers in the backfield and at tight end. James White caught more passes in a single Super Bowl than anyone else in NFL history in 2017. Rex Burkhead hauled in 30 receptions in 10 games last fall. The team’s other first-round pick this year, Sony Michel, made 64 catches in four seasons with one of the NCAA’s top running back platoons at Georgia.
But the real gamebreaker is Rob Gronkowski, who has single-handedly carried the Patriots’ offense in stretches throughout a Hall of Fame eight-year career. He had the fourth 1,000-yard campaign of his NFL tenure in 14 games last season, and while he’s a supernova on the field, he comes with concerns. He’s only 29 years old, but has taken as much wear and tear as anyone in the league, and a litany of injuries have kept him from the field throughout his career. We’re not even two years removed from a season in which Gronkowski suited up for just six starts. Losing him for any extended stretch and handing his targets to Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister, or Will Tye this fall would be a tremendous blow to the New England offense.
So, there are still reasons to be concerned
Sixteen games of Gronk will keep the Patriots entrenched as AFC Championship favorites. Losing him for an extended stretch of time — particularly while Edelman is suspended or if he struggles to return to full speed after tearing his ACL at age 31 — would present a major problem for a team that needs its offense to score big in order to cover for a defense with plenty of holes in 2017.
Even if Gronkowski and Edelman give the Pats full-strength seasons, New England is betting hard on a pair of former first-round speedsters who failed to live up to expectations in their original homes. Dorsett has the ability to torch defenders downfield, but his first season with Brady netted him less than a reception per game. Patterson has flashed his talent and versatility this preseason, but he’s struggled to be anything more than the low-usage, good teammate version of Percy Harvin in his four seasons in the league. Belichick can bring out the best in both players — but even that could be a major dropoff from last year’s wide receiver contributions.
Yes, Tom Brady has spun gold from worse straw in the past — but Brady wasn’t 41 years old when he had to turn Caldwell into his WR1. While this version of the Patriots quarterback is coming off an unprecedented MVP campaign while entering his fifth decade on the earth, it’s fair to wonder when time will begin to catch up with him. 2018 will mark the Patriots’ weakest receiving corps in more than a decade.
Will it mark the beginning of a Brady decline as well?