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. That being said, New England did get at least some production inside the formation — primarily in the form of Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu and Jakobi Meyers.
Out of the three, only Edelman is a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year — and even he is not a true slot receiver. Throughout his career, the veteran has shown that he can successfully play more than one role at a high level: he actually played more snaps split out wide (2,991) than in the slot (2,815) since he became a starting receiver in 2013. Even though this usage changed a bit over the last two seasons (1,125 snaps in the slot versus 880 wide) he is still expected to line up in numerous spots as a hybrid Z/slot option.
The slot and Z-roles are used somewhat interchangeably in New England’s offensive system, with players usually not exclusively used in one of them. Heading into this year’s training camp, this should therefore make for an interesting competition.
WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Jakobi Meyers, WR Gunner Olszewski, WR Jeff Thomas, WR Will Hastings, WR Isaiah Zuber
Behind roster lock Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ slot position is a rather young one. With the exception of Mohamed Sanu, who is entering his first full season in New England but ninth overall since arriving in the league, no player has more than one year of NFL experience under his belt: Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski are heading into their second seasons at the pro level, with Jeff Thomas, Will Hastings and Isaiah Zuber all having joined the team as undrafted rookie free agents earlier this offseason.
Based on his experience and pre-injury performance last year, Sanu should be seen as the frontrunner to earn a role as a slot/Z-receiver — thus joining Edelman and N’Keal Harry as the team’s wide receivers. If that is indeed the case, the questions becomes not just who will join the trio but also if a) one or both of the second-year men are able to make the famous Year Two jump, and b) how the rookies will adapt to life in the NFL.
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 slot 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. New England’s current slot crew had some issues in this area last season with Sanu and Meyers struggling with concentration drops. Additional experience in the team’s system, however, could lead to a more natural approach to playing within the offense and catching the football, and in turn to fewer drops committed by the two.
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 display proper technique to win their battles — something New England’s wide receivers had some issues with last year outside of Edelman. Luckily, the group will get a good trial-run in training camp considering the talent of New England’s secondary.
Fearlessness: Operating in the short areas and the middle of the field is a physically challenging task: bodies are flying around and hits are inevitable. The Patriots’ slot receivers therefore need to be physical and fearless: they cannot be afraid to get hit when running an underneath crosser or attacking up the seam, and have to learn how to properly absorb contact — and when to stop fighting for additional yardage.
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 slot spots. Olszewski, Thomas and Zuber all have considerable experience on special teams, for example, while Sanu and Meyers have shown that they can line up all over the offensive formation. Versatility will not be the ultimate deciding factor, but it could help tip the scales one way or another.
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. Edelman is a perfect example for that, but Sanu also looked good in this area last year. If one of the other competitors for the slot receiver role can also distinguish himself with his blocking he will certainly improve his chances of making the team.
All things considered, Sanu appears to have the best odds at making the Patriots’ 53-man roster out of the seven competitors listed above. Who will join him depends on the factors outlined above and the team’s overall composition of the wide receiver position as a whole: if the team keeps two X-options in N’Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd, for example, it may only have room for one or two additional interior receivers alongside Julian Edelman and Sanu.
Based on experience — an important factor considering the lack of a traditional offseason due to the Coronavirus pandemic — Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski would have the best odds. That said, Thomas in particular appears to be a viable challenger: Thomas is a raw player whose discipline issues in college are a red flag, but his natural talent and high upside as both a receiver and a returnman cannot be denied.
The 22-year-old therefore appears to be the prime challenger Meyers and Olszewski will have to go up against. While Thomas needs to show that he has the consistency on the field and in the meeting room to carve out a role, he has a golden opportunity in front of him to unseat one of the second-year men.