The New England Patriots have defeated the Detroit Lions 30-28 in the two teams' third preseason game. However, in the process of doing so, the defending world champions have lost one of their most important offensive skill position players to a potential season-ending injury: Julian Edelman, who hurt his knee after a catch-and-run on the Patriots' first drive.
Edelman led the Patriots in catches three of the last four seasons and is one of the toughest matchups in the NFL due to his quickness, route running abilities and chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady. And while New England still has a lot of talented options at the wide receiver position, replacing the 31-year old will be no easy task for the team.
With that in mind, let's take a look at how the team did it during Friday's game in Detroit to maybe get a glimpse at who might replace Edelman moving forward and how it might be done.
Immediately after Edelman's injury (Q1, 12:34), the Patriots used a 22-personnel formation. Chris Hogan, split wide to the right served as the lone pure wide receiver on the play. Hogan also stayed on the field during the next two plays: New England played out of a 21-personnel package with Hogan and offseason acquisition Brandin Cooks as the two wideouts on 1st and goal from the 10 and the ensuing 2nd down from the 8.
Edelman, due to his versatility as both an able blocker and a dangerous red zone target, might have originally been envisioned as a part of variations of this package, that also features a tight end, fullback and running back. Nevertheless, Hogan and Cooks are equally dangerous as a receiving duo that offers quickness at both spots with some added size by Hogan.
After only one offensive play by the Lions, New England's offense was back on the field (Q1, 11:37). The unit aligned in an 11-personnel package with trips to the left and Brandin Cooks as the lone wideout to the right. Considering the down and distance, Edelman likely would have been a part of this package that also featured Hogan, tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back James White:
To take over for Edelman, the Patriots turned to Danny Amendola. The 31-year old typically serves as a third down, hurry-up and red zone specialist but with his skill set being close to Edelman's in terms of quickness, he should become a key player when it comes to replacing the team's leading receiver of 2016. On the play above, for example, Amendola originally aligned as the F receiver in a so-called “Patriot” formation.
Amendola and second-year man Malcolm Mitchell, who was inactive against Detroit, will likely split the duty of filling Edelman's shoes in formations like this one. The two offer a good understanding of the offense and have earned Tom Brady's trust. And while Mitchell, once healthy, should see more of the early-down snaps in three-receiver packages, Amendola's role should expand as well. At least against Detroit, when he played 15 of 37 first-team snaps, it did.
The Patriots started their third series with two consecutive plays out of 21-personnel with Hogan and Cooks agains serving as the two wide receivers. After an incomplete 1st down pass intended for Cooks, the Patriots switched to their 11-personnel group and again brought Amendola onto the field on 2nd and 10 and the ensuing 3rd and 4. Normally, Edelman would have been on the field for both plays.
Now, however, it was Amendola's turn (he caught a 31-yard pass on the 3rd down play). How his usage will exactly look like once Mitchell has returned from injury remains to be seen. If the game against the Lions is an indication, though, the veteran will see an increased role as he is projected to take over a lot of Edelman's responsibilities on more than just late downs (all, of course, depending on the situation).
After Amendola's long catch, the Patriots went no huddle with a familiar group: Wide receivers Hogan and Amendola, tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back James White have all seen regular time in up-tempo packages last year as well. Edelman usually was a part of them as well but his spot will now be filled by Cooks moving forward.
Cooks, however, was expected to become a big part of no huddle groups anyway. The players benefitting from Edelman's absence are therefore projected to be Hogan, Amendola and Mitchell. All three will likely see an increased number of high-tempo snaps moving forward, sharing the second and third wide receiver role next to Cooks.
To end drive number three, New England went with a jumbo package touchdown run and a subsequent two point conversion. Both were scored by running back Mike Gillislee out of formations without any wide receivers on the field.
New England, up 21-0, started its fourth drive of the first quarter with a 22-personnel package that featured Hogan split to the far left. Hogan remained on the field for the next play as well, catching a six-yard pass on a comeback route, when Cooks was substituted in for a tight end. On the ensuing third down, the Patriots went back to their standard no-huddle package: 11-personnel with Cooks, Hogan and Amendola as the wide receivers.
As noted above, this group will likely be a heavily featured set within New England's offense this upcoming year. It was last week and on this particular play gained 25 yards on a Chris Hogan reception:
New England went with a 3x1 formation with Hogan as the lone receiver on the weak side. It was a nicely drawn up play with three crossing patterns within five yards of the line of scrimmage; all executed well by the players running the routes – Hogan as well as Gronkowski and Amendola. And even though their premier 3rd down weapon, Edelman, was not on the field the play design itself put the players in the best possible situation to succeed.
The Patriots played the next two plays in their three-receiver package – brining in Gilleslee for White – before moving to a 20-personnel group on third down: The wide receiver corps remained unchanged but both James White and Dion Lewis were brought onto the field at running back. Variations of the White-Lewis backfield were used on 26 offensive snaps during the 2016 season.
With Edelman out of the picture as a shifty and versatile skill position player, it would not be a surprise to see this package used more often. After all, both White and Lewis have proven themselves capable receivers out of the backfield and Brady went to one of them – White – on this play as well. And even though it did not result in a new set of downs, it offered another glimpse into how life without Edelman might look like.
The Patriots' first drive of the second quarter started with 14:00 left on the clock. On its first play, New England's offense aligned in 21-personnel with their standard two-receiver group of Hogan and Cooks in a slot formation to Brady's left. For the remainder of the drive, the team went with its standard packages: two receivers, three receivers with Hogan, Cooks and Amendola, one-receiver with Cooks – until going back to the White-Lewis combo on 3rd and long. The Patriots again failed to pick up the 1st down.
After an interception by Eric Rowe preserved the Patriots' 24-0 lead (Q2, 5:49), the offense was back on the field. It did not do anything extraordinarily in terms of personnel throughout the drive, which ended in an interception out of a two-receiver slot formation with Cooks and Hogan. It was the starting offense's final play of the day.
While the Patriots obviously did not have a chance to game plan without Edelman, the first half after his injury offered a bit of insight into how the team's offense will move forward without Tom Brady's favorite wide receiver of the past four years. Danny Amendola will see an increased number of snaps as will Chris Hogan in certain packages. The running backs are also projected to play an important role, as was on display on the two third and long plays.
All in all, replacing Edelman will not be a one-man task – the entire offensive skill position group will have to pick up its game. Luckily for New England, it has plenty of depth and talent in this area.