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The Patriots’ wide receiver position is worth monitoring this offseason

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The position seems stable heading into 2018, but there are still plenty of reasons to follow the group throughout the offseason.

NFL: New England Patriots at Oakland Raiders Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The wide receiver position will (likely) not generate the most media buzz this offseason. Needs at other high-profile positions and the recent Rob Gronkowski issues will dominate headlines over the next few weeks and months. Not to mention the enduring sagas of the Malcolm Butler benching and alleged Brady-Belichick rift. But there are plenty of reasons why the wide receiver group bears watching as the offseason unfolds and camp starts.

The Patriots currently have eight wide receivers under contract for 2018, per Spotrac: Brandin Cooks ($8.4M), Julian Edelman ($4.7M), Chris Hogan ($3.3M), Phillip Dorsett ($1.5M), Kenny Britt ($1.5M), Malcolm Mitchell ($774K), Cody Hollister ($555K), and Riley McCarron ($555K). Over The Cap includes Bernard Reedy in their positional mix, whereas Spotrac does not. Regardless, the likelihood of Reedy making the team as a wide receiver in 2018 is not good, so let’s not dwell on the discrepancy. Let’s also not include Matt Slater, who will likely be re-signed but is certainly not part of the wide receiver equation.

The top of the depth chart should shake out fairly predictably this offseason, albeit more expensive than usual. All signs are pointing to Edelman being 100% healthy for the start of training camp. Brandin Cooks was very good in his first year with NE and is set to play on his fifth-year option. $8.5 million is a large hit, but not prohibitive. The Patriots are likely working to extend Cooks to lower his cap hit for 2018, which would be smart: he’s young, smart, and talented. He’s not a perfect receiver, but he’s also a full year younger than Malcolm Mitchell, so there is an opportunity to improve. Even if the extension doesn’t work, he’ll likely stick around. I find it highly unlikely that New England traded a first round pick for Cooks without the expectation that he could play in 2018 at the $8.5M cap hit.

Chris Hogan was productive and dependable when he played in 2017. He can disappear against press coverage, but he clearly has the trust of the coaching staff and Tom Brady. Hogan was banged up all year and should spend the offseason at Danny Amendola’s School of Avoiding Hits. Hogan’s cap hit is reasonable and at the age of 29, the Patriots may consider extending the wide receiver.

Speaking of Amendola… the 32-year-old continues to step up in big moments. He was practically unstoppable in the playoffs. He also catches punts. The Patriots will try to bring him back, and Amendola has shown a willingness to sacrifice money to play in New England. However, given his playoff performance, there’s always the chance another team jumps into the mix and offers him a deal he can’t refuse.

With Edelman, Cooks, and Hogan under contract, the top of the depth chart should remain intact heading into camp. Behind the top three players, the competition for the final two to three roster spots will be fierce. If you assume Amendola returns, that leaves two available spots at the absolute most. The Patriots have three players, who all have NFL experience, signed in Phillip Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, and Kenny Britt. New England also has two practice squad players, Cody Hollister and Riley McCarron, under contract.

Let’s start with the practice squad players. Both Hollister and McCarron spent the year on the Patriots’ practice squad and both players will be fighting to stay on the roster. The Patriots liked them enough to keep them around for a year, so it will be worth monitoring if either can make a sophomore jump once camp begins. McCarron will be invariably christened as the next “Wes Welker” or “Julian Edelman” because of how he looks, but he faces long odds of being the next great slot receiver. However, the need for a developmental prospect at the slot position does exist, and McCarron has punt return experience from college as well.

Britt was brought in mid-season for depth reasons and has one year left on a team-friendly contract. His time in Cleveland was a disaster after signing a four-year, $32.5 million contract in 2017. Not much seems to go right with the Browns and the offense in Cleveland has been a mess under Hue Jackson. Being in New England and catching passes from Tom Brady is certainly a big difference. Analytics website Football Outsiders actually loved Kenny Britt heading into 2017, mostly because he was an untapped talent who spent his entire career with bad quarterbacks and bad coaches. Does playing with Hue Jackson and Deshone Kizer change that theory?

I doubt Britt can suddenly become a Pro-Bowl caliber player, but he does offer a skillset that doesn’t exist on the depth chart: He’s a big-bodied receiver who provides a physical presence that Edelman, Hogan, and Cooks don’t. If Britt can consistently catch the ball (something he hasn’t done) and beat press coverage, he has a chance to have a role in certain packages and matchups. New England certainly could have used a receiver like him against Miami, where the Dolphins’ physicality at the line of scrimmage derailed New England’s timing. After signing with the Patriots, Britt expressed his excitement to be in New England. Perhaps this opportunity, along with being in a contract year, will provide Britt with the motivation to become a difference maker.

Most people noticed that the Patriots traded Jacoby Brissett for Phillip Dorsett in September, but I’m not totally convinced that Tom Brady ever did. Dorsett played 377 snaps (33%) in 2017. For reference that was just six snaps less than James White. Yet, Dorsett was targeted only 18 times. That was four less than Dwayne Allen. It’s safe to say that Dorsett was an afterthought in New England’s offense, even with Chris Hogan missing games. There were plenty of plays where Dorsett appeared wide open, but Brady rarely looked in Dorsett’s direction.

New England’s offense is challenging to master, and Tom Brady’s trust is notoriously difficult to gain. Dorsett faced an uphill battle by joining the team in September. It will be interesting to see how Dorsett responds after a full season and off-season with the Patriots. Dorsett’s speed is a terrific asset, especially if New England continues to throw the ball downfield. A three-wide receiver lineup with Edelman, Cooks, and Dorsett puts a lot of speed on the field. Maybe Dorsett can get an invite to Brady’s remote Montana facility to work on chemistry.

Malcolm Mitchell’s lost 2017 season was unfortunate. Mitchell was a terrific possession receiver with good explosiveness in 2016. His ability to consistently win comeback routes against Atlanta was a key factor in the Super Bowl win, and the Patriots missed Mitchell when Chris Hogan went down. But the expectations for Mitchell’s return should be met with caution. Concerns about Mitchell’s injury history caused him to slip in the draft, and he routinely missed practices during his rookie season to rest his knee. A healthy Mitchell would certainly compete for a significant amount of snaps, and hopefully, he can be close to 100% at the start of OTAs. Unfortunately, this appears to be a chronic injury. If you’re the pessimistic type, any additional production from Mitchell should be viewed as gravy. Maybe Malcolm can get hooked up with Kobe Bryant’s knee doctor in Germany.

The Patriots are set to spend more money on the wide receiver position than they ever have ($20.8M) even before accounting for Amendola’s potential salary. The position currently eats up 12% of New England’s cap. In most years, that would likely indicate a significant offseason salary cut. But, once again, the cap is set to increase. The Patriots should have plenty of room under the cap to make moves, especially after they address low hanging fruit like the combined cap hit of $11 million for Dwayne Allen and Martellus Bennett.

The top of the depth chart appears relatively stable for 2018, with Edelman, Cooks, and Hogan all under contract. New England would also like to bring back Amendola as additional wide receiver and punt return depth. The battle for the last one or two spots will be fascinating. Dorsett, Britt, and Mitchell are all relatively cheap and provide different skillsets.

Britt is a big-bodied, athletic wideout who languished with poor quarterback play throughout his career. He has routinely said that he’s always wanted to be a Patriot and he’ll have the opportunity to earn a spot. Dorsett is a young speed demon with virtually no production in three seasons. He played a ton of snaps for the Patriots, but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at his stat sheet. His speed could potentially be an asset, especially in 11-personnel sets next to Edelman, Cooks, Gronkowski, and James White. That’s a lot of team speed. Dorsett will need to prove he can dependably execute routes and catch the ball in traffic.

Malcolm Mitchell is the biggest mystery of the group. He is simultaneously the safest bet to make the roster while also being the most likely to retire from football altogether. He was terrific as a rookie and offers Tom Brady a dependable possession receiver. However, chronic knee issues are not good. If Mitchell enters camp healthy, he’ll likely earn a spot on the depth chart.

Of course, there is one more potential player I’m missing: a potential 2018 draft pick. The wide receiver group is far from the biggest need on the roster, but there is a scenario where that changes quickly. The Patriots only have Edelman and Mitchell under contract for 2019. There is a scenario in which New England can’t extend Cooks or Hogan and Amendola leaves/retires this season or next. This would suddenly turn the group into a one. It is plausible New England targets a wide receiver, especially if negotiations with Cooks go south.

Things can change quickly in the NFL, but New England’s wide receiver depth chart looks strong heading into 2018. The backend of the depth chart could be the most competitive it’s been in years, with talented guys like Britt, Dorsett, and Malcolm Mitchell battling over roster spots. Their cap hits are all reasonable, so I’d expect the Patriots to let them compete in camp, barring the need to make cuts to facilitate a trade or free agent signing.