Back in March, the Patriots had a stacked receiving corps, leaving 2017 NFL MVP Tom Brady a wealth of options. Julian Edelman was returning after a torn ACL that cost him the 2017 season. Brandin Cooks, headed into a contract year, notched his third straight 1,000-yard season in his first (and only) season with New England. Even when he was traded to the Rams early in the month, the team was able to sign Jordan Matthews, who averaged 75 receptions per year in his first three seasons with the Eagles.
Malcolm Mitchell, who peaked at the end of his rookie season in 2016, had knee surgery in his rear view and was primed to restart his ascent. Danny Amendola was a free agent, but the reliable postseason presence seemed like a solid bet to re-sign with the club after restructuring his contract in each of the past three seasons to stay with Brady.
Now it’s August, and New England will likely start its 2018 campaign without a single one of those wideouts. Cooks is a Ram. Amendola signed with the Dolphins for a borderline hilarious amount of money. Matthews and Mitchell both perpetuated their injury woes from last season; Matthews was released after being placed on injured reserve, and the team has been actively working to trade Mitchell. Edelman was handed a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancing drug policy.
Instead of relying on Cooks, Matthews, or Amendola to fill out their depth chart, the Patriots will instead turn to Cordarrelle Patterson, Kenny Britt, Phillip Dorsett, and, after Thursday’s reported signing, Eric Decker. That could be a problem.
New England is relying on a deep vein of question marks to bolster its receiving corps
The talent out doesn’t match the talent in. That’s an issue for a team starting a soon-to-be 41-year-old behind center. From a numbers standpoint alone, the two sides don’t add up. The Patriots lost 151 catches and worth of 2017 production — which includes zeroes from Mitchell and Amendola and just seven starts from Matthews — and are now relying on four players who combined for 117.
Even worse, that group was led by Decker (54 receptions), who at 30 years old last fall put together the least productive 16-game season of his career. While he served as a sure-handed presence for Marcus Mariota with the Titans, his 10.4 yards per catch were the lowest of his career, and his days as a bonafide deep threat are behind him. That’s an issue for a team that recently traded away Cooks, one of the league’s fastest receivers and a player who accounted for 9.5 yards per target in ‘17.
Instead, those playmaking duties will fall back on Chris Hogan, Patterson, and Dorsett. Hogan proved he can be a home run hitter when he led the league with a 17.9 YPC average in 2016, but his numbers fell back to earth last season as he fended off injuries. Patterson and Dorsett are less reliable. Patterson has made his hay in the NFL as a kick returner but has yet to find the team that can unlock his true potential as an offensive player — though his pairing with Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is promising.
Dorsett, despite behind a fellow first-round draft pick selected specifically for his playmaking skills, has a weaker resume than Patterson. He’s played for two top-flight quarterbacks (Brady and Andrew Luck) but has never had more than 33 catches in a single season through his three-year career. While he had his moments with the Patriots after heading east in exchange for Jacoby Brissett, he finished 2017 with just 12 receptions and still may not be a lock for the final 53-man roster, even with New England’s lack of contributors.
And then there’s Britt, who was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2016 but will be 30 in 2018 and caught only 46.5 percent of his passes last fall. While the bulk of those came from the merry-go-round of sadness the Browns claim is their quarterback rotation, it’s fair to wonder whether the inconsistent veteran can be a major contributor. The team is high enough on him to push Mitchell onto the trading block thanks to his ability to play on the outside — but that could just be talk to try and cover any concerns about the reasons behind the team’s willingness to part with Mitchell.
Otherwise, the team may have to rely on untested rookies like sixth-round pick Braxton Berrios or the undrafted Darren Andrews and Riley McCarron.
Decker may have been the best veteran option in a limited free agent pool
So the Patriots needed bodies to replenish a fading receiving corps. Why settle on an aging wideout coming off a season where he was mostly anonymous in Nashville?
The optimistic answer is that Decker and McDaniels have an existing relationship from the coordinator’s days as the Broncos’ head coach. He drafted the University of Minnesota standout with the 87th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft and oversaw the first 12 games of his pro career. Of course, McDaniels was fired 75 percent of the way into that rookie campaign and Decker had just three receptions with him as his coach, but the connection exists.
The pessimistic one is that Decker was probably the best the Pats could do. The veteran was one of the biggest names on an already picked-over list of free agents. Dez Bryant could have been a fit, but neither side has appeared especially interested in teaming up. Old friend Brandon LaFell didn’t get cut by the Bengals until after the team had already worked out Decker. Other options like Jeremy Maclin, Harry Douglas, and Louis Murphy carry the same age concerns as Decker. Dontrelle Inman has fewer miles on his odometer, but wasn’t retained by the WR-needy Bears. That’s bad!
Instead, New England liked what it saw in Decker’s workout and signed him instead, hoping last year’s dip in production was related to Tennessee’s below-average quarterback play. If there’s anyone who can bring out the best in a pair of aging wideouts and two deep threats with limited resumes, it’s Tom Brady. The question is whether Decker and Britt will be savvy LaFell/Amendola type signings, or another Chad Ochocinco for the Patriots