The Patriots made headlines when they traded for troubled Browns receiver Josh Gordon. Gordon broke out with 87 catches for 1646 yards and 9 TD on 159 targets for Cleveland in 2013. That performance included a 10/151/2 day against Aqib Talib and the Patriots, in which NE barely escaped with a 26-21 victory. Since that year, Gordon has only seen 93 targets and 43 catches due to his own battles with addiction to recreational drugs and alcohol. With the Patriots receiving corps from Super Bowl LI and LII decimated by free agent departures, suspensions, and injuries, the team took a flyer on Gordon to try to recapture that old magic.
The Patriots invested a 5th round pick in Gordon, which barring any more legal troubles or a relapse in his addiction issues means he’s on the roster for the rest of the season. He brings a matchup element the Patriots’ other receivers don’t have, size and speed. The Patriots currently have Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett as their primary receivers, but neither guy is going to get open against #1 corners, especially against teams like Jacksonville that have two players of that caliber. Julian Edelman is back in Week 5, but coming off an ACL injury and 32 years old, it’s not a safe bet to assume he’ll be as productive as he’s been the last 5 seasons.
I expect the Patriots to employ Gordon in a very simplified role, slowly easing him into the offensive game plan. I would not be surprised if he is inactive for Week 3, as the Patriots will be playing a Lions team that’s due for a culture shock. Gordon won’t be asked to understand the entire playbook, but rather the cliff notes version and what game plan they have for him against a given opponent. Here are some ways they can transition him into the offense in total:
Gordon’s biggest attribute as a receiver is the ability to separate vertically. His 6’3” height is also an advantage on those type of routes down the field due to his ability to high-point the football and keep it away from defenders. Just ask the Steelers
That’s Gordon’s only catch of the season to date, but it highlights the skill he has for vertical routes. The threat of the deep ball outside the numbers will allow the Patriots to attack the middle of the field in both the run and pass game. Rob Gronkowski is the Patriots’ only consistent threat to beat teams deep, which is why the safety is sitting towards the middle of the field or shaded to Gronk’s side if he is lined up in the slot or on the boundary. I don’t expect Gordon to consistently burn teams deep, but one or two deep completions to him will force teams to have to adjust their game plan. On these type routes, I expect him to be late in the progression unless matched up against smaller corners on an island.
Slants and In-Breaking Routes:
Gordon’s deep speed is something teams will have to respect, which means they will be playing a lot of off-man or zone to combat that. Obviously teams aren’t going to play zone because it turns into pitch and catch for Tom Brady and his RBs or Gronk. If teams are playing way off, I think hitting a couple slant or quick-in routes for free yards to keep drives can add an element of frustration for opposing defenders. One way to scheme this route open is to line up Gordon next to a slot receiver who is running a deeper route towards the boundary to set a natural pick on Gordon’s defender. The Patriots did that with Michael Floyd back in 2016 when Floyd took a quick-in route and bulldozed the Miami defense to the end zone.
In total, I don’t expect big contributions from Gordon as a whole to the offense. However, teams are also very well aware what he’s capable of from that breakout year with Cleveland five seasons ago. Whether that matchup has a domino effect that improves the Patriots’ chances of putting together a strong offense that can win the postseason is yet to be seen.