I wrote up a little evaluation of the Patriots options at wide receiver prior to the draft and it wasn't very pretty. It featured a top six of Danny Amendola, Jeremy Ebert, Donald Jones, Matthew Slater, Michael Jenkins, and Andre Holmes.
Only Danny Amendola and Matthew Slater made it through the pre-season- and let's be serious that Slater should only see the field on offense in cases of dire necessity.
That depth chart wasn't what Patriots fans wanted for Tom Brady down the back stretch of his career, and when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernadez became unavailable for their own reasons, the lack of depth at receiver was glaring.
So let's move to this season. The Patriots didn't sign Hakeem Nicks, or Emmanuel Sanders, or Golden Tate. But the depth is apparent and it's clearly better than last season.
Last year, I categorized the receivers as "big" (X), "versatile" (slot), and "possession (Z), which is a grave injustice to the receiver position. If you want to read a fantastic break down on the difference between the X, the Z, and the slot roles on an offense, I highly advise reading Matt Millen's breakdown.
But I think this is still too constrained in the NFL. Just like how the Z is different than the X, even though they both line up on the outside, I believe the slot receiver position is in need for some new definitions.
In our minds, "slot receiver" conjures the image of Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Austin Collie, Davone Bess, Tavon Austin, and Percy Harvin.
But what about newly signed 6'2, 210 lbs Brandon LaFell, who spends nearly two-thirds of his time in the slot? Or what about the 6'5, 225 lbs Marques Colston, 6'0, 200 lbs Victor Cruz, 6'0, 200 lbs Greg Jennings, 6'0, 215 lbs Anquan Boldin, 6'2, 215 lbs Miles Austin, or even the 6'0, 205 lbs Hines Ward, each of whom spend a rough majority of their time in the slot?
As Matt Millen explains, there are some characteristics in a Z receiver that matches the role of the slot. Meaning that Z receivers are expected venture inside and in motion, which I would say describes LaFell. However, if a player spends the majority of the time in the slot, does that make him a slot receiver who moonlights as a Z? Or a Z with extreme focus in the slot?
Because when we think of a Z receiver, we're thinking of speed demons like Mike Wallace, Torrey Smith, DeSean Jackson, and T.Y. Hilton; I might even put Josh Boyce into that mix. These are players with free release who are supposed to be attacking the deep half of the field with their speed. LaFell doesn't match that role in a traditional sense.
Since we're distinguishing between different receiver types, we should be able to create our own definitions for use. Even if LaFell and Colston and Boldin are classically defined as Z receivers in the traditional sense, just our intuition can point out that they're different receivers than Jackson and Wallace.
I propose that we define receivers like LaFell as "F receivers", or flankers, which some might remember being the term used to describe Aaron Hernandez's role.
So our new terms for definition:
X: On the line of scrimmage, usually opposite the tight end. Tends to be bigger and usually is the team's #1 receiver. Since they're on the line, they're bigger and stronger to get off of man coverage.
Z: Off the line of scrimmage, usually on the side of the tight end. Lines up on the outside, tends to be faster and will be the team's deep threat as they'll usually have free release off the snap. We can compare these players to being "gunners".
S: Slot receivers in our Patriot traditional sense; smaller and shiftier possession players who earn their keep inside and thrive with yards after the catch. Tends to attack the linebackers in coverage.
F: Off the line of scrimmage, they're movable chess pieces that line up wherever they can best attack a defense. They go inside, outside, deep, shallow; they're a jack-of-all-trades and are match-up makers.
With these definitions in mind, here's the breakdown of the Patriots receiver depth chart:
X: 1. Aaron Dobson; 2. Kenbrell Thompkins; 3. Greg Orton
Z: 1. Josh Boyce; 2. Matthew Slater; 3. Reggie Dunn
S: 1. Julian Edelman; 2. Danny Amendola; 3. Josh Boyce
F: 1. Brandon LaFell; 2. Josh Boyce; 3. Mark Harrison
Here's our three deep chart, with full supplement duty by Josh Boyce. Bolds are roster locks. Italics are back end of the roster candidates. Underlined are on the roster bubble as camp bodies.
I will also say that I project Boyce higher than Thompkins this off-season, purely because his skill set is so unique. Thompkins is closer to the bubble than many realize, although I believe he ultimately sticks.
Depending on how the Patriots view the rising sophomore of Thompkins and Boyce will define the rest of the off-season at the position. If the team believes both can be a part of the future (I do), then it's likely they won't bother with a late-round flier in the draft, and maybe invest in just one or two camp bodies. If they think they're upgradable due to limited upside, then don't be surprised if the Patriots take advantage of the receiver depth in this draft.
As X receivers like Kenny Britt continue to visit, and as the team continues to interview and work out X receivers in the draft like Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., and Marqise Lee, it's clear that the Patriots aren't finished polishing off the position.
No matter whether or not the Patriots address the position any further, the team is definitely in a position position than it was last season.