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Film room: Dontrelle Inman has the hands and versatility to carve out a role on the Patriots

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New York Giants v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are retooling their passing offense, and just last week made two more additions by signing tight end (and ex-Patriots first-round draft pick) Benjamin Watson as well as wide receiver Dontrelle Inman . But while the latter is not as proven a commodity as Watson, he still brings value to New England as a potential third/fourth wide receiver alongside the projected top trio of Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry and Phillip Dorsett.

But how exactly could Inman’s role and contributions look like? Let’s consult the film to find that out, and to evaluate the veteran receiver’s outlook in terms of surviving roster cutdowns — and maybe more.

Hands

Inman only joined the Indianapolis Colts midway through the 2018 season, but he was still able to carve out a role as the rotational number two wide receiver alongside T.Y. Hilton. One reason for that was his best attribute at this stage in his career: his ability to make tough, contested catches. This helps make up for some of his other shortcomings as a receiver while giving quarterbacks a reliable target when trusted with a pass coming his way.

Lining up as the X-receiver on the left side of Indianapolis’ 2x2 set, Inman faces one-on-one press-man coverage against Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson. While the Colts wideout fails to gain significant separation, Andrew Luck still trust him with the football: Inman is able to get open just enough to catch the football on a comeback route, showing tremendous concentration despite a defender breathing down his neck.

This ability to hold onto the football in traffic is something the Patriots are certainly looking for. The following play is another example of Inman doing it:

The play is similar to a Phillip Dorsett touchdown scored against the New York Jets last year, and even more so to Danny Amendola’s game-winner against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2017 AFC Championship Game. Just like Dorsett and Amendola did on their respective scores, Inman — starting from a three-man bunch to the formation’s right — is able to get open on a crossing pattern along the end line. He gets tackled almost immediately after catching the football, but is able to hold on for the score.

Inman possesses a reliable pair of mitts, which also allows him to make catches outside of his frame:

On this play against the New York Giants, Inman lines up in the slot and quickly turns around for the pass. Luck fires the football to his receiver’s outside shoulder to get it away from the defender, but in turn forces his target to extend in order to make the catch. Inman does just that, scoring one of four touchdowns he had over the course of the eleven games he played in 2018.

All in all, Inman is a reliable catcher of the football: he knows how to high-point the ball when it is in the air, has strong hands to hold on even through contact, and has the concentration to complete a catch even when there are bodies around him. Given all of this and his 6-foot-3 frame, he could become an asset for the Patriots in the red area or on third downs — a similar roll as the one formerly played by the aforementioned Danny Amendola.

Versatility

His touchdown against the Giants is exemplary for Inman’s ability to play both on the inside and on the boundary: Indianapolis trusted him to be productive even when moved around the formation. This certainly makes him a fit for the Patriots’ offense with all their pre-snap shifts and various packages. The following play is therefore a good example of how New England might use him:

Again, Inman makes the tough catch in traffic after lining up in the slot. While he may not be the strongest or fastest receiver, his quickness in combination with great hands certainly makes the 30-year-old an option as a bigger slot in three or four wide receiver sets. Simultaneously, his size allows him to also make back shoulder catches or win jump balls on the boundary.

Don’t be surprised if New England uses Inman in a variety of roles over the course of the summer to see how he performs in them — and what his value to the team is from a situational perspective.

Route running

What also makes Inman an intriguing addition to the Patriots’ offense is his route running: while not the best at gaining separation, he generally knows how to use his body and athletic skills to nevertheless position himself well to make the catch — no matter what route he is running.

Aligning as the X-receiver on the weak side of the formation, Inman runs a deep in-cutting route on this play from the divisional playoff round. One step on rookie cornerback Charvarius Ward is all the wideout needs to give Luck the window he needs to complete a pass. The route itself is one that the Patriots like to run on a regular basis, with Josh Gordon being used like this on numerous occasions. The suspended Gordon could still be a factor in 2019, but Inman could help fill the void at least to a certain degree until he returns.

Inman again aligns on the boundary on this play, facing off against single off-man coverage. He takes advantage of it: the former undrafted rookie free agent runs a double move on a post-out-combination route to use his leverage against the Houston Texans’ defensive back. Inman employs a head fake to get the cornerback to bite on the inside route, but shows off his quickness to quickly reverse course and get significantly open for a 21-yard gain.

The receivers’ quickness also is on display on the following play from the Colts’ playoff win over the Texans:

Inman’s first-ever postseason touchdown came on a similar route as the last play we looked at: he too aligns in the X-receiver role on the formation’s weak side against off-man coverage, and once again uses his quickness to get open for the catch. Inman runs another inside fake to take advantage of his leverage after building up steam through a free release, and gets cornerback Shareece Wright to bite on it. The defender fails to recover and Andrew Luck finds his receiver for an easy score.

When he can operate in space, Inman makes for a dangerous weapon due to his quickness — he ran a 6.53 three-cone drill at his Pro Day in 2011 — and precision at running routes. This in combination with his versatility, should give Josh McDaniels a receiver able to be moved around the formation to find favorable matchups against certain coverages and defensive backs.

Yards after the catch

Inman is not a threat to create huge yards after the catch due to his lack of functional strength and inability to consistently gain separation against press-man coverage, and the way teams have used him in the past because of his shortcomings. That being said, he will still fight for extra yardage when in a position to do so:

On this play — also from the Colts-Texans divisional round matchup — Inman runs a quick in-route from the near-side boundary to catch a short pass. He immediately eludes one tackler and turns up the field to gain additional yardage before finally being spun to the ground. While the receiver should not be expected to make plays like this on a regular basis, it once again illustrates his ability to exploit off-man coverage.

Creating separation

As noted above, Inman is best when playing with a free release and against off-man or zone coverage concepts. He still has had some issues in the past against these types of defensive approaches, however, as the following play from his game against the Jacksonville Jaguars shows:

Inman runs a favorable route for the type of player he is, but still fails to get open enough to make a play on the ball. The main reason for that is the disciplined play by Jacksonville’s cornerback, who reacts quickly to the in-cutting route ran by his assignment and closes the short gap in an instant. Inman often relies on his quickness to get open, but when the ball is not delivered right after he makes a cut he lacks the speed to maintain leverage for a considerable time.

The good thing, when it comes to the Patriots, is that he will likely be used differently than he was with the Colts. New England — as opposed to Indianapolis — has at least three wide receivers ahead of Inman on its depth chart: Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, and Phillip Dorsett (four, if you also count Josh Gordon). Ideally, those three will see the most action at wide receiver and therefore face an opponents’ top three coverage players.

Inman, on the other hand, would most likely be a matchup-specific fourth option going either against depth defenders or helping other wide receivers get favorable matchups. With the Colts, he was often plugged in as the number two wide receiver option alongside T.Y. Hilton. Unless the the 30-year-old surprises over the course of the summer or Harry’s development happens slower than anticipated, Inman will not see the same prominent snaps he did in Indianapolis.

So where does this leave him regarding his roster outlook? As can be seen, Inman certainly can be a productive player for a New England team that typically tries to put its talent in favorable situations. And if he make the most out of them by using his strengths in space and his outstanding hands, he could very well make the team over player such as Demaryius Thomas and Maurice Harris. Of course, he needs to create a rapport with Tom Brady quickly and perform in training camp in order to beat out his competition.

Another factor to be considered is Josh Gordon: the Patriots’ primary X-receiver from a year ago remains indefinitely suspended, but could return to the team before the start of the regular season. Gordon has been tremendous during his short tenure with the team, and would certainly be an upgrade over Inman and the other depth wide receivers on New England’s roster. If Gordon gets activated, don’t be surprised if neither of them makes the team.

Ultimately, however, Inman cannot worry about things he can’t control: he needs to adapt quickly to one of the NFL’s most demanding offensive schemes, and show that he can be trusted as a primary perimeter target and potential red area weapon.