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Patriots free agency outlook: New England has plenty of options to improve its wide receiver position

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Related: Patriots free agency outlook: New England’s backfield in good shape heading into 2020

NFL: New England Patriots at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots’ 2019 season came to a premature end when the team was eliminated in the wild card round of the playoffs. In order to return to the top of the NFL mountain, the organization will therefore have to turn the page and build a competitive roster to get back into a position again to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. A big part of building that roster is successfully maneuvering through free agency.

If judged by the list of free agents to be, New England’s front office will be busy over the next few days before the new league year and free agency are officially kicked off on March 18. Also over the next few days, we will take a look at each individual position on the Patriots’ current roster to find out which players are headed for the open market, whether or not they should be expected back, and who might be brought in from the outside.

Today, the series continues with the wide receiver position.

Current position group

Under contract: Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Quincy Adeboyejo, Devin Ross

Free agents: Phillip Dorsett II (UFA), Matthew Slater (UFA)

Free agency profile: Phillip Dorsett II

Opening day age: 27

2019 salary cap hit: $2.6 million

2019 statistics: 15 games; 29 receptions, 397 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns; 3 carries, 21 rushing yards

Experience: Dorsett originally entered the NFL as a first-round selection by the Indianapolis Colts in 2015, but failed to live up to his draft status early on in his career. He was therefore eventually traded to the Patriots shortly before the 2017 regular season, carving out a rotational role in New England over the next three years. However, Dorsett — who re-signed with the team in 2019 — was unable to crack the regular rotation again and eventually finished last season as only the number four option at the receiver position.

Contract status: Set to enter free unrestricted agency on March 18.

Dorsett was reliable when being thrown the football — he was one of only five players in the league and the only one in New England to finish the 2019 season without a drop on 30+ catchable targets — but still failed to earn a regular role as a perimeter receiver within the offense, even when the pass catching corps struggled with consistent play and injury. As a result, it would not be surprising to see the Patriots being unwilling to invest any major resources in the 27-year old this offseason.

While there have been reports about preliminary talks between the team and the veteran receiver’s camp, Dorsett appears to be on his way to testing the market when it opens on March 18. His reliable hands, championship pedigree and status as a former first-round draft pick should help him find a new home — if not, however, a return to the Patriots on a cost-effective contract could still be an option. This is far from guaranteed, though.

Free agency profile: Matthew Slater

Opening day age: 34

2019 salary cap hit: $2.9 million

2019 statistics: 17 games; 10 special teams tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 blocked punt, 1 special teams touchdown

Experience: Despite being the son of a Hall of Famer, Slater was a relative afterthought in the 2008 draft: the Patriots brought him on board as a fifth-round draft pick, and he never really established himself as an NFL-caliber wide receiver. Nevertheless, he was able to carve out a role as a core special teamer — and never looked back: over the 12 seasons that followed, Slater made six All-Pro teams and won three Super Bowls. The team captain is well on his way to at least the franchise’s own Hall of Fame.

Contract status: Set to enter free unrestricted agency on March 18.

For the second time after 2018, Slater is scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency later this month. As opposed to Dorsett, the expectation is that the 34-year-old has a clearer path ahead and will eventually return to New England after one of the best seasons of his career. While this should help him generate a solid market, his age and value to the Patriots as a core kick coverage player and locker room leader cannot be understated.

Outside free agents

Robby Anderson, New York Jets (UFA): Anderson may not be one of the league’s elite wide receivers, but he is a serious deep threat that is capable of challenging all levels of a defense due to his tremendous speed. While he has the length to work as a number one outside target at 6-foot-3, his slender 190-pound frame suggests that the 26-year-old might be better suited as a rotational Z-receiver.

Travis Benjamin, Los Angeles Chargers (UFA): Coming off a season that ended prematurely due to a quad injury, the Chargers will part ways with Benjamin: he is reportedly expected to be released before the start of the new league year. While his numbers decreased every season since a 68-catch, 966-yard campaign with the Cleveland Browns in 2015, the 30-year-old might still be able to contribute as a third/fourth option.

Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys (UFA): Arguably the top wide receiver to enter free agency this year, Cooper is a big play threat that can win one-on-ones not just due to his athletic skillset but also with exceptional technique and route running. All in all, the 25-year-old is an elite talent and would help the Patriots improve one of the weakest parts of their aerial attack last season: production on the perimeter and in the deep parts of the field.

A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals (UFA): Even though Green missed all of 2019 due to a nagging ankle injury that first popped up in the summer, the Bengals are expected to place the franchise tag on the veteran receiver. Things can change quickly at this time of the year, but it would still be a surprise if the 31-year-old eventually hit the open market.

Breshad Perriman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (UFA): A former first-round pick that failed to live up to his draft status in Baltimore, Washington and Cleveland, Perriman had the best season of his four-year career as a member of the Buccaneers in 2019: he caught 36 passes for 645 yards and six touchdowns — all new career-highs — and showed that he might still have something to offer as a perimeter receiver in the NFL.

Emmanuel Sanders, San Francisco 49ers (UFA): Sanders is a savvy veteran that could help not just the development of young Patriots receivers like N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers but also the offense as a whole from day one. After all, the soon-to-be 33-year-old is still a premier route runner and capable of winning one-on-one matchups against press-man coverage by using his experience and short-area quickness to create leverage.

Tajae Sharpe, Tennessee Titans (UFA): The former fifth-round draft pick was a steady contributor during three of his four seasons in Tennessee — the fourth, in 2017, he missed due to a foot injury — but was relegated to the number four spot on the team’s wide receiver depth chart last year. Sharpe is probably no number one receiver, but he might be able to carve out a situation-dependent role in the right environment.

Laquon Treadwell, Minnesota Vikings (UFA): Treadwell’s situation is similar to Perriman’s: he was selected in the first round of the 2016 draft, but never met expectations in four seasons with the Vikings — catching just 65 passes for 701 yards and two touchdowns in 56 games. Even though he cannot be trusted to suddenly turn his career around, the 24-year-old can only benefit from a change of scenery.

Verdict

New England has a mix of veterans and developmental youngsters on its current wide receivers depth chart, but it does lack proven star power outside of a 33-year-old Julian Edelman. Free agency does offer some potential options to address this issue, but the franchise tag — there is a chance neither A.J. Green nor Amari Cooper make it to the open market — and a difficult salary cap situation complicate matters for the Patriots.

Nevertheless, the team being active this offseason can be expected: while only one of its own free agents will likely be re-signed — Matthew Slater, whose impact on offense is virtually non-existent — the depth behind roster locks Edelman and N’Keal Harry might be improved. Free agents such as Emmanuel Sanders, Robby Anderson or Tajae Sharpe appear to be potential targets, while the trade market also seems like a feasible way for the team to bolster its overall quality at wide receiver.

Either way, it would be surprising if re-signing Slater was the only move the Patriots made at the position between now and the draft.