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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: Sean Riley’s special teams potential is intriguing

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Related: Patriots roster breakdown: WR Will Hastings

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

With less than a weeks to go until their entire roster is scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s undrafted rookie class.

Hard facts

Name: Sean Riley

Position: Wide receiver

Jersey number: TBD

Opening day age: 22

Size: 5-foot-8, 180 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 RFA)

Experience

What is his experience? After having played running back in high school, Riley arrived at Syracuse primarily projected to help in the return game and play wide receiver. While he did not see regular action in the latter role until his junior season, he made an impact in the kicking game right away: Riley led the NCAA in kickoff return yardage as a true freshman in 2016 with 1,095 yards — a sign of things to come. All in all, he ended his four-year college career with a combined 2,433 yards gained on 115 kickoff returns.

Riley also ran back 50 punts for 563 yards and a touchdown during his time with the Orange, and furthermore blocked two punts. As noted above, he also earned a starting wide receiver role in 2018. As such, he combined to catch 100 passes for 1,031 yards and four scores over his final two seasons — finishing his time in Syracuse ranked third on the school’s all-time list for all-purpose yards gained (4,358). Despite all of this success, however, Riley did not hear his name called during the NFL’s 2020 draft.

What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off a junior year in which he amassed a team-leading 1,424 all-purpose yards and started 12 of a possible 13 games as a slot receiver, Riley decided to stay in school and return for the 2019 campaign. The decision may have been a sound one given his lack of consistent receiving production during his first two seasons at Syracuse, but it eventually contributed to him failing to generate any consistent momentum heading towards the draft this spring.

After all, Riley saw his numbers drop across the board: after catching 64 passes for 756 yards and three scores the previous year, he was on the receiving end of just 36 of them — for 275 yards and a touchdown — in 2019. While he did play in all 12 games to bring his career total to 49 of a possible 49 in-game appearances, Riley’s role within his team’s offensive attack was scaled back as offensive coordinator Mike Lynch decided to no longer use his screen and slot game in such a prominent fashion.

Riley still found some success as a return man, though, despite posting his worst kickoff return totals and averages since starting his college career: he ran back just 15 kickoffs all year for 259 yards and an average of 17.3 yards per return; he also returned 15 punts for 139 yards and a 9.3-yard average. His senior campaign can therefore be considered a slight disappointment compared to his encouraging 2018 season.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? Entering the NFL, Riley’s role has to be seen two-fold based on his time at Syracuse. On the offensive side of the ball, he appears best suited to play from the slot or the Z-alignment as a situation-specific receiver whose value lies primarily in clear passing situations. On special teams, meanwhile, he has the experience and track record to carve out a prominent role right away as both a kickoff and a punt returner.

What is his special teams value? Riley’s special teams potential is intriguing. Not only is he one of the most productive return man the ACC has ever seen — he averaged 21.2 yards per kickoff return and 11.3 yards per punt return in college — he also has proven himself a solid coverage player. While his upside as a wide receiver may be somewhat limited, his kicking game prowess might earn him a spot on New England’s roster when all is said and done.

Does he have positional versatility? Outside of his special teams abilities, Riley also offers some solid versatility on the offensive side of the ball: a former running back, the 22-year-old carried the football 15 times in college for a combined 97 yards. The totals might not be overly impressive, but they are a reflection of a diverse skillset that could also be used on other misdirection plays such as jet-sweeps or reverse runs.

What is his salary cap situation? Riley signed a standard three-year free agency deal with the Patriots after not getting selected during this year’s draft — a contract including a $5,000 signing bonus as well as $10,000 in salary guarantees. Accordingly and with the NFL still operating under its top-51 offseason rule, he is currently hitting New England’s books with a salary cap number of just $1,666 (his 2020 signing bonus proration). If Riley makes the team, however, this number will increase to $611,666.

What is his roster outlook? Riley faces plenty of competition at the wide receiver position behind roster locks Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry and Matthew Slater, but he has a very good case to carve out a role as a return specialist. As such, he would have to beat out players such as second-year wideout Gunner Olszewski and fellow undrafted rookie Isaiah Zuber. Based on his pedigree, Riley appears to be in a solid position to at least challenge the two for a spot on the 53-man roster or practice squad.