The New England Patriots’ wide receiver position is coming off a disappointing year. Whether it was injury, inexperience or off-field issues, the group as a whole failed to consistently get on the same page as quarterback Tom Brady and to provide him the necessary help to challenge opposing defenses through the air. While New England did get some production out of its slot and Z-receivers — primarily Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu and Jakobi Meyers — the X-position remained a work in progress all season long.
Will this year be any differently, especially at the X-spot? Before trying to find out who has the best chances at helping turn the Patriots’ fortunes around at the position, a quick reminder: Basically speaking, the X-receiver is a split end lining up on the weak/non-tight end side of the formation and normally aligns on the line of scrimmage and without the ability to go into any sort of pre-game motion (as opposed to the off-the-line receiver spots).
This role and the responsibilities within it is oftentimes shared by a group of wideouts in New England, but the team generally has players fitting the prototypical X-receiver profile on its roster: from Chris Hogan and to a lesser extent Cordarrelle Patterson to Brandin Cooks and Randy Moss. Let’s take a look at this year’s group to find out who will try to succeed those players this year.
WR N’Keal Harry, WR Damiere Byrd, WR Marqise Lee, WR Quincy Adeboyejo, WR Devin Ross
The Patriots’ X-position saw some serious turnover over the last two years. Gone are the likes of Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Josh Gordon, with new faces such as N’Keal Harry, Damiere Byrd and Marqise Lee being brought in along the way. Of the three, only Harry — the 32nd overall selection of the NFL’s 2019 draft — is a lock to make the team this seasons despite his rather disappointing and injury-riddled rookie campaign. With him taking hold of one roster spot, the question is who will earn the others if there are any open to begin with.
After all, the Patriots also are comparatively deep at the slot/Z-positions: they have seven players competing for those spots as well, with only Julian Edelman’s etched in stone. Nevertheless, Damiere Byrd and Marqise Lee appear to be the front-runners to join Harry as the Patriots’ primary outside receivers: both have plenty of experience, while Byrd offers an element of speed and Lee some intriguing previous production.
The deciding factors
Chemistry with the quarterbacks: You can be an All-Pro talent but if you fail to get on the same page as the Patriots’ quarterback — whether he is named Cam Newton or Jarrett Stidham — you’re going to have a bad time. New England’s X-receivers therefore have to read coverages properly to make the right decisions on the team’s option routes, and to subsequently be in the location their passer expects them to be. If receivers can’t develop that chemistry and earn the QB’s trust, they will have a hard time in New England’s system.
Hands: Being in the right spot against the right coverage is just one deciding factor — actually catching the football is equally important. N’Keal Harry showed some positive development in this area during his rookie season, successfully performing back-shoulder catches and out-leaping defenders when targeted. While he needs to get more consistent, the other wideouts listed above will have to show that they can plug the football out of the air as well no matter the situation.
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. Ex-Patriot Josh Gordon was very good in this area over the last two years due to his size and ability to time his jumps perfectly. N’Keal Harry also looked decent fighting for contested catches at times. Once again, however, consistency will be the key for him.
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 — something Harry and the rest of New England’s wide receivers had some issues with last year. Luckily, the group will get a good trial-run in training camp considering the talent of New England’s secondary.
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. N’Keal Harry, for example, showed that he can find success as a ball-carrier last year when he gained 56 yards on six carries. Damiere Byrd, meanwhile, offers upside as a kick returner, while Quincy Adeboyejo and Devin Ross have experience playing the Z-receiver role as well.
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 to sustain their blocks in the running game. Harry developed nicely in this area last year, and if one of the other competitors for the X-receiver role can also distinguish himself with his blocking he will certainly improve his chances of making the team.
N’Keal Harry certainly had his moments in 2019, but found himself in a difficult situation due to his inexperience and injury situation. If he is able to take the next step in his development, however, he should be able to earn a de facto starting role as the Patriots’ number one X-option: his talent cannot be denied and during the offseason focused on addressing some of the issues against press-man coverage that plagued him last year.
The question heading into training camp therefore now becomes who earns a job alongside him. While Quincy Adeboyejo and Devin Ross have an edge when it comes to experience due to their previous time on New England’s practice squad, the battle will realistically come down to Byrd versus Lee. There are arguments to be made for both, but until they show that they can successfully function within the Patriots’ offensive scheme and alongside the club’s quarterbacks, every projection will be purely speculatively.
Either way, the battle between the two (and to a lesser extent Adeboyejo and Ross as well) should be a fun one.