During their final open practice of the week, the New England Patriots’ featured a depleted pass catching group: with multiple top-level options at wide receivers and tight end nursing injuries and being unable to participate, Tom Brady had to throw to a combination of rookies or other inexperienced youngsters, and veteran free agency acquisitions. Despite that, things are looking bright as the unit’s talent will soon get a major boost.
As was announced yesterday, the NFL has reinstated wide receiver Josh Gordon after he was indefinitely suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The 28-year-old can officially re-join the team on Sunday, and will then immediately become one of the Patriots’ top pass catchers — just like last year after the Patriots acquired him via trade from the Cleveland Browns. Needless to say that this is great news for both him and the club.
With that in mind, let’s reset New England’s wide receiver depth chart. Of course, you always have to keep in mind that the labels are not exclusive, and that most players are capable of playing multiple positions.
Demaryius Thomas (PUP)
The return of Gordon adds a big body to the Patriots’ current group of X-receivers, and a player to put some pressure off first-round draft selection N’Keal Harry to step into the lineup and play considerable snaps right away. Harry, of course, is a roster lock and as such will still see his fair share of action. At this point in time, however, New England has the luxury to play it slow with the rookie who is currently dealing with a minor foot/hamstring injury.
The rest of the X-receiver group consists of Phillip Dorsett, who also is a safe bet to make the team given his experience in the system, and a bunch of players not expected to contribute much if anything early on during the season: free agency acquisition Demaryius Thomas is still on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and might stay into the regular season; Damoun Patterson appears to have little chances of actually making the team; Matthew Slater is a core special teamer but no realistic offensive weapon.
Julian Edelman (NFI)
Cameron Meredith (PUP)
Once Julian Edelman returns of the non-football injury list (NFI), he will take his rightful spot as a starting wide receiver alongside Gordon and a third matchup-specific option. Despite the hand injury that forced him to sit out the start of training camp, the reigning Super Bowl MVP is again projected to be among the team leaders in every major receiving category — and to serve as Tom Brady’s go-to guy no matter the situation.
Jakobi Meyers and Maurice Harris have yet to build that same level of trust, but they appear to be on a good way. Undrafted rookie Meyers has been the biggest surprise of camp, and well on his way to make the club as a rotational and versatile option. Free agency addition Harris, meanwhile, has been one of the most consistent pass catchers on the team this summer and like Meyers could also play the X and slot roles effectively if need be.
Behind the three (near-)roster locks are Cameron Meredith and Dontrelle Inman. Given the circumstances, neither of the two players should be expected to be on Patriots’ 53-man roster come opening day: Meredith will likely remain on PUP into the season, while Inman has shown little so far that warrants keeping him around over one of the younger options that have more upside and production in the system.
Despite Braxton Berrios sitting atop the slot group here, he is no lock to make the team: Edelman, Meyers and Harris are all capable of playing from the slot as well and could make the second-year man expendable. That being said, Berrios did look good at times during training camp — he has seen plenty of action with the starting offense — and also adds value in the return game. He still appears to have a chance of surviving cutdown day.
Ryan Davis and Gunner Olszewski, meanwhile, will likely find themselves among those who get released in two weeks. Neither has seen much action with Brady over the last three weeks and would likely benefit from a year on the practice squad before being able to seriously contribute — especially Olszewski, who played defensive back until joining the Patriots as an undrafted rookie earlier this offseason.
All in all, the addition of Gordon changes the entire complexion of the Patriots’ wide receiver position and could lead the team to keep up to seven of the fourteen players listed above on their opening day squad. The following lineup would therefore make sense:
X-receiver: Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett, N’Keal Harry, Matthew Slater (ST)
Z-receiver: Jakobi Meyers, Maurice Harris
Slot receiver: Julian Edelman
Gordon, Harry, Slater and Edelman are the only locks among this group but it would be a surprise if Meyers did not also join them on the 53-man team. Dorsett’s and Harris’ standing on the roster, meanwhile, is not quite that secure and an alternative like Berrios might make one of them expendable considering his special teams contributions and overall skillset. Needless to say that Gordon only adds more intrigue to the competition.