Under Contract (2015 Week 1 Age): Julian Edelman (29), Brandon LaFell (28), Danny Amendola (29), Matthew Slater (29), Aaron Dobson (24), Josh Boyce (24), Jonathan Krause (23)
Exclusive Rights Free Agents: Brian Tyms (26), Greg Orton (28)
2014 Review: This season didn't go according to plan. Kenbrell Thompkins was released early into the season and signed with the Oakland Raiders. Dobson never recovered from his foot injury and almost immediately reinjured himself. LaFell looks terrible through the first couple of weeks. Tyms was suspended for the first four weeks. Amendola was nonexistent.
Edelman was great.
It's funny how the position develops and grows over the course of the season as players gain confidence and pick up in game experience. Receivers will never develop without seeing time on the field, and that's why teams like the Packers and Steelers do such a good job developing the position, while the Patriots struggle- in New England, if you can't do your job, you won't see the field.
LaFell only improved because he had to see the field. Amendola couldn't be counted on, until he was forced playing time at the end of the season due to Edelman's concussion. These players were incredibly key throughout the playoffs and LaFell exceeded most expectations, especially those tempered by early season failures.
Losing Dobson really hurt the outlook of the position and forced the team to adjust on the fly. While the Patriots don't really subscribe to traditional receiver roles, from an aesthetic standpoint Dobson as the X (outside receiver), LaFell as the Z (movable chess piece), and Edelman in the slot makes a lot of sense. With Dobson out, LaFell took over the X, Edelman the Z, and Amendola held down the slot. It ended up okay, but it probably wasn't what the team had in mind.
Edelman was the true rock of this position group, as well as the inspiration for the team as a whole. After the midway point of the season, Edelman was the target on 10+ plays in every single game (he received 8 targets and 2 rushing attempts against the Colts in Week 11). Teammates are on the record saying that his passion inspired them to elevate their efforts in the Super Bowl. He's incrEdelman.
An unsung hero has to be Jonathan Krause on the practice squad; he offered some terrific match-up opportunities over the back-end of the season, with measurables that compare favorably to T.Y. Hilton, Randall Cobb, Percy Harvin, and more. He likely helped the team a lot during the week.
Slater is a captain, an All Pro, and received an extension. He's awesome.
2015 Projection: Edelman and Amendola are signed through 2017, while LaFell and Dobson are under contract through 2016.
Amendola's cap hit of $5.7 million is much to high for his output, and the only way he'll be around next season is if he restructures (which is entirely possible). For reference, Amendola's average cap hit is 5th highest on the team.
The other receivers are extremely cost effective for the impact they offer. The fact that the Patriots can bring back all of their receivers, if they want, will be a major boon for the offense as consistency is so important for success.
Edelman and LaFell return as the top targets and it's hard to see a reason why they both can't break the 1,000 yard mark on the season (along with Rob Gronkowski). Should the Patriots go a different direction from Amendola, the depth becomes a little more murky.
Dobson has a major and deserved question mark about his future. He looked primed to break out this season, but fell flat on his face. That said, LaFell said that he owes a lot of his success to absorbing Dobson's knowledge early on in the season; Dobson needs flip the situation and just follow LaFell and Edelman the entire off-season if he wants to have a break through junior campaign.
Boyce is a sleeper to take over the Amendola role if need be; he's tremendously athletic and was promoted to the active roster towards the end of the season when Edelman was concussed.
Tyms should be back next season as everyone loved having him around. His enthusiasm was contagious and he was a consummate teammate, helping out whenever he could. He will be in direct competition with Aaron Dobson for one of the receiver spots, and they were neck-and-neck during the regular season, before Dobson's injury.
Slater will continue to be Slater.
Should the Patriots somehow find the cap space to improve the wide receiver position this off-season, there are plenty of possibilities on the market.
Big Receivers: Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt
Deep Receivers: Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith
Move Receivers: Michael Crabtree, Randall Cobb, Eddie Royal, Nate Washington
Will the Patriots be interested in any of them? Doubtful, since they have to worry about the contracts of Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty- but the idea of adding Dez to the Patriots offense is tantalizing.
Regardless of if any other players are brought on board, the Patriots wide receiver position will be better next season, compared to this season, purely based on the added year of experience for LaFell and Edelman. Look for a huge 2015.