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Who will lead the Patriots in the major receiving categories in 2020?

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Related: Patriots roster tier: The wide receivers

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Despite having future Hall of Famer Tom Brady under center, the New England Patriots’ passing offense struggled mightily over the second half of the 2019 season. Be it because of injury, inexperience or inconsistency of both personnel and performance, Brady and his pass catchers failed to keep the offense competitive. With the greatest quarterback of all time taking his talents to Florida, the question now becomes who will emerge among the Patriots’ pass catchers in 2020 as the top targets for QB1 Jarrett Stidham.

At the moment, the following skill position players are under contract:

  • 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

The depth itself may be sufficient, but the quality and ability to contribute is the biggest unknown at the moment. Players such as Julian Edelman and James White are proven contributors in the passing game — as is Mohamed Sanu, at least to a certain degree as it relates to New England — but the rest of the 28 men listed above has either no proven track record in the NFL, or no consistently noteworthy contributions to speak of.

With that all said, let’s borrow an idea from Dave Halprin of Blogging The Boys and try to project who will lead the Patriots’ pass catchers in the major receiving categories this year.

Receptions

Since becoming a starting wide receiver in 2013, Julian Edelman led the Patriots in receptions four different times — including a 100-catch campaign in 2019 despite dealing with numerous injuries. Heading into the new season, the expectation therefore is that Edelman will again be team’s leader in this category despite not having the same chemistry with Jarrett Stidham as he had with Tom Brady. Still, Edelman’s abilities to beat man coverage due to his quickness and technique make him a valuable safety-valve receiver for whoever starts at quarterback.

As the 2018 season showed, however, any time missed could create a different dynamic: back then, Edelman was suspended for the first four games of the season, and James White took the team-lead in regular season receptions. While Edelman has proven himself as tough a player as any in the NFL, he is not immune to short-term injuries and in turn to losing the receptions title to either White or other projected top-level underneath targets such as Mohamed Sanu or Jakobi Meyers.

With that in mind, the projection to become the Patriots’ receiving leader in 2020 is still Edelman — with the three positions as a whole breaking down as follows from the current perspective:

  • Backfield: James White
  • Wide receiver: Julian Edelman*
  • Tight end: Devin Asiasi

*projected team leader

White and Edelman are pretty straight forward, with Devin Asiasi possibly a surprise. The thought behind including him is as follows: the two returning tight ends — Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo — have not shown that they can consistently produce in the passing game. While they could make the jump in what is virtually Year Two for both, Asiasi’s upside as a pass catcher in the short and intermediate range makes him the choice.

Receiving yards

Receiving yards and receptions are oftentimes closely tied together. Only twice since 2013 has the Patriot with the most catches not also accumulated the most receiving yards — a trend that is not expected to change in 2020, despite players like N’Keal Harry, Marqise Lee or Damiere Byrd possibly being able to challenge opposing defenses deep on a more consistent basis than the Julian Edelmans or James Whites of the world.

The projection, for the time being, therefore looks just like the one in the receptions category:

  • Backfield: James White
  • Wide receiver: Julian Edelman*
  • Tight end: Devin Asiasi

*projected team leader

That said, Edelman and Asiasi in particular will face some challenges this year. At wide receiver, the aforementioned N’Keal Harry could be a challenger for the receiving yards crown if he proves himself a viable option at the X-receiver position. At tight end, meanwhile, Matt LaCosse, Dalton Keene and Ryan Izzo — who registered 19.0 yards per catch in 2019 — could gain more yards than Asiasi despite being projected to catch fewer passes.

Only the running back position appears to be settled from this perspective, with James White again expected to see considerable action and opportunity as New England’s top receiving back.

Yards per reception

Did you know that linebacker-turned-emergency-fullback Elandon Roberts led the Patriots in yards per reception in 2019? He took his lone catch of the season for a 39-yard touchdown, blowing his competition out of the water. Of course, catching one pass is hardly the statistical threshold to aim at. Players should therefore at least have some semblance of a regular role to qualify for this category.

If we use this parameter and remove Roberts from the equation, the aforementioned Ryan Izzo would lead the team by posting 19.0 on his six receptions, followed by Gunner Olszewski (two for 17.0 each) and Josh Gordon (20 for 14.4 each). There is a chance that a role player like Izzo or one of the depth wide receivers again picks up the most yards per catch, but based on roles and how those were used in the past, the following players could lead the team in 2020:

  • Backfield: Rex Burkhead
  • Wide receiver: N’Keal Harry*
  • Tight end: Devin Asiasi

*projected team leader

Asiasi again takes the tight end crown due to his projected role as the team’s TE1, with Rex Burkhead taking over at running back for James White: Burkhead had a higher YPR number than White in each of his three seasons since arriving in New England.

At wide receiver, meanwhile, former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry is the choice. While Harry has yet to prove himself as a player capable of making a regular impact on the Patriots’ offense, his projected role as a Josh Gordon-like big-bodied X-receiver could serve him well when it comes to gaining yards despite not registering all that many catches. Gordon, for example, led New England’s wideouts in yards per reception in both 2018 (18.0) and 2019 (14.4). A similar number would also put Harry in the run for the team lead.

Receiving touchdowns

Historically, the player with the most caches is also the one with the most touchdowns — something that was true each of the last three years, and five of a possible seven times since 2013. Judging by this historical precedent, the projected team leader in catches should also be the projected team leader in touchdown receptions: Julian Edelman. The quarterback factor cannot quite be underestimated, however, and there appears to be a chance that James White bounces back as the team’s touchdown leader.

After all, short receiving and screen game might see a renaissance in New England with Jarrett Stidham under center. Until this actually shows on the field, though, the projection stands unchanged at the three positions:

  • Backfield: James White
  • Wide receiver: Julian Edelman*
  • Tight end: Devin Asiasi

*projected team leader

So with that all being said, who are your choices to lead the Patriots in the respective receiving categories this year? Please, let us know in the comments!