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How will Danny Amendola’s return affect the rest of the Patriots wide receivers?

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The veteran returned to practice yesterday.

Despite missing their most dominant skill position player – tight end Rob Gronkowski – due to injury, the New England Patriots still have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to offensive playmakers. The team has talent at running back, tight end, fullback and wide receiver. And the latter of the four is about to receive another boost.

Veteran wide receiver Danny Amendola returned to practice yesterday, after missing the last four weeks due to a high ankle sprain he suffered in week 13. Amendola appeared to move fine during drills and seems to be on his way to play in the Patriots’ playoff opener next Saturday.

With spots on both the game day roster and the field limited, though, this sparks the question what kind of impact Amendola’s return will have on the team and especially its wide receivers. After all, the other five wideouts – with one of them, Matthew Slater, strictly a special – have all been major contributors this season or over the course of the last four games.

One thing seems certain: Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan are the top two options at wide receiver right now. Accordingly, they project to be on the field for a majority of offensive snaps. This leaves three players – Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Floyd – as rotational pieces, depending on situations, matchups and formations. And if the first three quarters of this season are an indicator, Amendola will have a distinct role within this rotation: He will, once again, serve as a third and fourth down specialist for the Patriots.

Prior to injuring his ankle against the Los Angeles Rams, Amendola was the target of 29 pass attempts, catching 23 of them for 243 yards and four touchdowns. Of those targets and receptions, the vast majority came on third down: New England’s quarterbacks looked his way 18 times for 14 connections; 11 of those resulting in a new set of downs; two in scores. It has become clear that the quarterback(s) and the coaching staff trust Amendola in high-pressure situations.

It is doubtful that him missing the last four games will have an impact on this trust and the chemistry he has developed with quarterback Tom Brady over the years. Therefore, Amendola’s role within the offense is expected to look as it did prior to his injury: He will play about one third of offensive snaps – most of them on third down – while simultaneously seeing time as a member of the team’s up-tempo and no-huddle packages as well as well as in the red zone. He will also serve as the top option on kick returns.

Consequently, Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Floyd are bound to see limited snaps in those situations. Overall, though, this will not be that big of a change for both of them. Prior to his week 16 knee injury, Mitchell’s snaps and targets have been evenly distributed between all three downs as he effectively served as the third wideout on early downs while also being frequently targeted in the red zone. Floyd’s usage is similar, as he saw one of his six targets come on third down and two in the red zone.

Of course, this does not mean that Mitchell and Floyd won’t see any playing time on third down, or that Amendola won’t be part of early down packages. After all, New England’s personnel usage is not only dictated by situations but also by matchups. Still, the veteran’s return will likely have an influence on the rotation at the number three wide receiver spot as the coaching staff now has another body available – one, that brings a different skill set and experience to the table.

Mitchell and Floyd will see a reduced number of snaps as a result, but this allows the Patriots to keep all three players in the rotation fresh while using them according to their strengths and the matchups. Going against the NFL’s top teams in the upcoming weeks, having this luxury could prove to make a meaningful difference in tight games.