The slot wide receiver position as we know it today would not exist without the New England Patriots’ approach to it: with the team moving to a spread offense in 2007, the slot man — in that particular case Wes Welker — saw extensive action as the quarterback’s safety blanket. The spot has been in good hands in New England ever since, going from Welker to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.
Edelman will again see considerable playing time in the slot in 2019, but he is no pure slot receiver: he only played a little more than half of his snaps from the interior, lining up on the boundary quite regularly as well. This, in turn, creates options for other wide receivers to step in and contribute as guys to rotate into (and possibly out of) the slot in a package-specific way like the aforementioned Amendola.
Let’s take a closer look at those fighting for what projects to be at best one spot.
WR N’Keal Harry, WR Dontrelle Inman, WR Braxton Berrios, WR Ryan Davis, WR Jakobi Meyers, WR Gunner Olszewski
First-round pick N’Keal Harry is the only roster lock on this list, and he will likely be an X-factor when it comes to the slot role in 2019: if the Patriots see that he is capable of moving between the boundary and the interior — something he should be able to work given his quickness and route running abilities — they might opt against keeping a true slot receiver on the 53-man squad.
That being said, if one of the other competitors stands out, the team could very well decide to keep another wideout on its roster alongside the projected top four (five if you count the suspended Josh Gordon): Edelman, Harry, Phillip Dorsett and Maurice Harris.
The deciding factors
Chemistry with Tom Brady: You can be an All-Pro talent but if you fail to get on the same page as the Patriots’ quarterback, you’re going to have a bad time. Brady is a perfectionist and the system which he helped build needs his pass catchers to operate in the same fashion: they have to read coverages properly to make the right decisions on option routes, and need to be in the exact location the future Hall of Famer expects them to be. If receivers can’t develop that chemistry and earn Brady’s trust, their tenures in New England will be short.
Hands: With all that in mind, being in the right spot against the right coverage is just one deciding factor — actually catching the football is equally important. Braxton Berrios displayed a reliable set of mitts during New England’s organized team activities and minicamp, so he could be an intriguing player to watch in an Amendola-esque role. Dontrelle Inman, on the other hand, did not get a chance to showcase his pass-catching skills: Brady targeted him not once during spring workouts open to the media.
Physicality: Given the Patriots’ usage of timing patterns, they will face their fair share of press-man coverage again this season. Wide receivers being able to properly disengage and get past defensive backs is therefore key, so they will have to show the right amount of physicality and technique to win their one-on-one battles whenever they face them. In training camp, the group will get a good trial-run considering the talent of New England’s secondary.
Positional versatility: New England puts a premium on versatility, and the wide receiver position is no different — especially when it comes to the current competition for the slot spot. Braxton Berrios, Ryan Davis and Gunners Olszewski, for example, have seen regular practice reps as punt returners during the spring, while Dontrelle Inman and Jakobi Meyers have experience lining up all over the offensive formation.
Run blocking: While a wide receiver’s job is to get open and catch the football, to quote Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, the role itself extends beyond that in the team’s offense: wideouts also need to be capable of sustaining blocks in the running game. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola were excellent in this area, and if one of the competitors for the slot role can distinguish himself with his blocking he will certainly improve his chances of making the team.
With Harry and Edelman (and to a lesser degree Phillip Dorsett) projected to line up in the slot on a regular basis, a maximum of one spot remains open to compete for — and that is only if the players in question show enough promise to be kept over depth options at other positions. Based on organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, and his ability to perform as a punt returner as well, it appears that Berrios has the best chances of earning it.
That being said, he will need to build on a solid spring in order to actually a) stay ahead of his competition, and b) carve out a role on the team as what is likely a fifth wide receiver (or sixth pending Gordon’s return). Is it possible that the team decides against using that many bodies at the position? Certainly, which is why a good performance in training camp and the preseason is imperative for Berrios and company in order to either make the 53-man roster or the practice squad.