Former New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady always had his guys — players he trusted regardless of the situation and who consistently appeared to be on the same page as the future Hall of Famer. Among the members of the so-called Circle of Trust, however, some still stand out. Troy Brown. Deion Branch. Wes Welker. And, most recently, Julian Edelman. While Brown, Branch and Edelman won multiple Super Bowls, Welker transformed how the slot position is seen in the NFL during his six-year tenure with the Patriots.
What all four of them do have in common is that during their and Brady’s time in New England, they were his safety net and the guys who consistently led the team in receptions due to their innate abilities to get open. Having pass catchers like that has always been important to the Patriots’ offensive operation, but one question still has to be asked with Brady now playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Who will be the next go-to receiver, assumedly for second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham?
Let’s take a look at the Patriots’ current skill position roster to see who could qualify:
- Backfield: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden, Danny Vitale, Jakob Johnson, J.J. Taylor
- Wide receiver: Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu, Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, Marqise Lee, Gunner Olszewski, Matthew Slater, Quincy Adeboyejo, Devin Ross, Will Hastings, Jeff Thomas, Sean Riley, Isaiah Zuber
- Tight end: Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, Jake Burt, Rashod Berry
Brown, Branch, Welker and Edelman all served in the Z/slot role during their time in New England, and thus saw considerable action inside the formation — attacking the middle of the field as well as the short and intermediate areas. While this does not necessarily disqualify primary outside options such as N’Keal Harry, Damiere Byrd or Marqise Lee, it makes them less likely to earn the “safety blanket” title in quite the same fashion as Edelman and company have carried it over the years.
With that said, let’s take a look at the six most realistic candidates from the current perspective.
Well, duh. Edelman has proven himself as one of the best underneath pass catchers in all of football and even though he is 34 years of age and has suffered numerous injuries in 2019 has shown little signs of slowing down. He will therefore play a big role in the Patriots’ offense again this year, despite the change at quarterback, but the end is undoubtably in sight for the most prolific postseason wide receiver of the league’s salary cap era. From a short-term view, Edelman will be Jarrett Stidham’s number one guy. From a longer-term perspective, likely not.
Among the most reliable backfield receivers in the NFL, White led the Patriots in receptions during the 2018 regular season. The 28-year-old is not in the same mold as the aforementioned Edelman and company simply due to his role, but he could still take over as a security option in New England’s new-look offense. If coordinator Josh McDaniels turns to the screen and misdirection game as a primary tool to attack defenses with Stidham at the helm, White could see an uptick in touches and develop the chemistry that made Brady-to-Brown/Branch/Welker/Edelman such a potent combination.
Last year, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said that Meyers would not be a “player that other teams are saying, ‘We’ve got to double-cover this guy.’” Still, he showed some positive strides during his rookie campaign and developed a rapport with Stidham over the course of the preseason: in four exhibition games, the two connected 16 times on 21 targets for a combined 216 yards and a touchdown (and a passer rating of 124.3). Meyers may never become the next Julian Edelman, but he could grow into a reliable contributor and potential safety blanket for Stidham for years to come.
The Stidham-Olszewski combination did not have quite the same success last preseason as Stidham-Meyers, but it still had its moments: the two rookies connected four times on six targets for a combined 63 yards. Olszewski, a converted defensive back, made his living on special teams but his time on the scout team offense alongside Stidham could pay dividends. And — who knows? — maybe his career follows the same path as Edelman’s, who changed positions upon arriving in the NFL and grew from return specialist to key player within the offense.
Before he tore his ACL during 2018’s spring practices and Stidham’s departure the following offseason, Hastings was the quarterback’s go-to-guy at Auburn: the two connected 26 times for 525 yards and four touchdowns during their lone season together in 2017. Can they rekindle that old flame in New England after the Patriots signed Hastings as a rookie free agent? It is possible given the team’s questions at the wide receiver position and the duo’s experience working alongside each other.
While fellow third-round rookie Devin Asiasi is the prime candidate to take over as the Patriots’ number one tight end, Keene’s versatility might make him an intriguing option to one day fill the Brown/Branch/Welker/Edelman role: he can line up all over the formation and has proven himself a productive if underutilized player in the underneath portions of the field in college. If the 21-year-old can get up to speed quickly, he might be a candidate to carve out considerable playing time alongside Stidham and develop into one of his favorite targets.