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Patriots training camp competitions to watch: X-wide receiver

Who will become New England’s top perimeter wide receivers?

NFL: New England Patriots-OTA Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

For the second year in a row, the New England Patriots’ wide receiver position saw some major offseason change thanks due the free agency departures of what is essentially half of last year’s group: Cordarrelle Patterson signed with the Chicago Bears, while Chris Hogan joined the Carolina Panthers — two players that saw considerable action lining up split out wide on the perimeter playing the X-receiver role.

Basically speaking, the X-receiver is primarily a split end lining up on the weak/non-tight end side of the formation. This role is oftentimes shared by a group of wideouts in New England, but the team generally has players fitting the X-profile on its roster: from Chris Hogan and to a lesser extent Cordarrelle Patterson to Brandin Cooks to Randy Moss. Who will step into their shoes in 2019? Let’s take a look at the candidates.

The competitors

WR N’Keal Harry, WR Phillip Dorsett, WR Maurice Harris, WR Dontrelle Inman, WR Demaryius Thomas, WR Damoun Patterson, WR Josh Gordon (suspended)

Only one of the seven players listed here is a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster: N’Keal Harry, who was selected by the reigning world champions with the 32nd overall pick in this year’s draft. As we have discussed previously, Harry perfectly fits what New England is looking for at its X-receiver spot due to his combination of size, ability to make contested catches, and physical edge. That being said, the rookie will have to earn playing time just like any other wide receiver not named Julian Edelman — he just doesn’t have to worry about losing his job.

The other players on the roster offer plenty of experience, even if mostly not in the Patriots’ system. While Phillip Dorsett has been with the Patriots since 2017, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman and Demaryius Thomas (currently recovering from an Achilles injury) were all acquired this offseason. Realistically speaking, the quartet will fight against 2018 practice squad receiver Damoun Patterson for two spots on New England’s 53-man roster. Judging by the offseason so far, Dorsett and Harris should be seen as the favorites to win the battle.

Of course, Josh Gordon could change the entire outlook at the position and by extension make other receivers fighting for roster spots expendable. After all, the veteran, who is still serving an indefinite suspension, was terrific when on the field last year and quickly built a rapport with Tom Brady in the X-receiver role. Whenever he returns, he will add considerable talent to New England’s group of wide receivers — in turn making the life harder for those competing for a spot on the team.

The deciding factors

Given the general similarities between the wide receiver spots in the Patriots’ system, a lot of the points listed here are the same as in our breakdown of the slot receiver competition.

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. N’Keal Harry and Maurice Harris looked good in this area during the Patriots’ mandatory minicamp, seemingly boosting their stock heading into the summer break. 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 and technique: Given the Patriots’ usage of timing patterns, their pass catchers 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.

Contested catch ability: While the X-receiver runs his fair share of slants and other short to medium in-breaking routes in the Patriots’ system, he also needs to be able to get down the field and win one-on-one matchups if need be. Josh Gordon was very good in this area in 2018 due to his size and abilities to time his jumps perfectly. N’Keal Harry also looked decent fighting for contested catches while playing at Arizona State.

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 X-spot. Phillip Dorsett, for example, has considerable experience playing the Z-receiver role (usually held by Julian Edelman) as well. Meanwhile, N’Keal Harry and Dontrelle Inman appear to be well suited to line up in the slot and on the perimeter.

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. Chris Hogan was serviceable in this area, and if one of the competitors for the X-receiver role can distinguish himself with his blocking he will certainly improve his chances of making the team.

The prediction

With N’Keal Harry taking one spot as the X-receiver, the Patriots will likely only keep a maximum of three more of the players listed above. Judging by their experience in the system and performance during spring practices, it appears as if Phillip Dorsett as the X/Z hybrid and Maurice Harris as more of a deep threat are currently on the inside track to carve out roles alongside the first-round rookie and fellow roster lock Julian Edelman.

In turn, only one spot is projected to remain open and it will either go to a primary slot receiver like Braxton Berrios or an X-player. Ideally, Josh Gordon would receive it given his impressive first few games in New England last season. With no visible progress on this front, however, it seems more likely that another wideout will get the spot. Given Inman’s lack of involvement this spring and Demaryius Thomas opening training camp on the physically unable to perform list, it would not be a surprise to see Berrios come up as the winner.

This would leave the Patriots with two true X-receivers in Harry and Harris, and with two X/Z hybrids in Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett, alongside one slot/rotational option in Berrios. A solid group, but one that would benefit greatly from Gordon’s eventual return.