The New England Patriots’ wide receiver position has been one of considerable investment and turnover going all the way back to the 2017 season. Whether it was spending a first-round draft pick for a one-year rental of Brandin Cooks, letting Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan leave in free agency, selecting N’Keal Harry 32nd overall, or sending a second-rounder to the Atlanta Falcons for Mohamed Sanu, New England has not shied away from using its resources to bolster the position.
Heading into 2020, however, the group does still not appear to be set.
While Harry and veteran Julian Edelman are locks to make the roster and play prominent roles as part of the post-Tom Brady offense, the Patriots just yesterday informed Sanu of his release. The 31-year-old is the first domino to fall in what has been an interesting battle for roster spots over the course of this summer’s training camp — one that was also discussed by Bill Belichick during a media conference call on Wednesday.
“Competition at that position has been good,” the Patriots’ head coach said. “As always, that’s the type of position where you can really see an individual highlight play or a play that may not be as good — a dropped ball or a spectacular catch — and those plays are a lot more visible and really easily identifiable relative to an interior line play or that type of thing.
“With that position, it’s important to develop consistency. There’s a lot of time receivers are open, but the ball is thrown to the other side of the field or they’re covered, and so that’s all part of it, too. It’s not just those highlight plays that everybody sees but really the evaluation of the player’s consistency to win his route or block the player that he’s supposed to block in the running game as part of the run force and so forth.”
Consistency has been somewhat of an issue for the Patriots’ receiving corps this summer. Julian Edelman was not present on a day-to-day basis while receiving the veterans’ treatment of getting select practices off. X-receivers N’Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd both had their ups and downs. Gunner Olszewski was a standout, but had issues with drops at times. Jakobi Meyers and Jeff Thomas missed time due to apparent injuries. Devin Ross started hot but cooled off as camp went along. Isaiah Zuber and Andre Baccellia were mostly uninspiring.
Sanu’s release may open a door for other players to join what is projected to be the core group at wide receiver — Edelman, Harry, Byrd and Olszewski — but it does not help with what looks like a lack of quality depth at the position overall. It remains to be seen how or if the team addresses this perceived issue, but projected starting quarterback Cam Newton will have to work with the players surrounding him regardless of name or proven productivity within New England’s scheme.
That said, production is an important factor for the team’s head coach. While the likes of Edelman and Olszewski may be seen more as inside options compared to Harry and Byrd, Belichick does not care about labels as he pointed out on Wednesday.
“We have outside receivers and we have inside receivers and then have receivers that can play both or have some combination of skills where they can play both spots. All three are important. Some guys can be outside only, some guys can be inside only, some guys can have that flexibility,” he said. “In the end, I think it’s really more about production and performance, although size and skillset plays a part in that, as well.
“They are related, but really the most important thing is to be productive. We’ve had them in different shapes and sizes. We had Deion Branch and Randy Moss. They were both outside receivers and couldn’t be more different. But, I think the typical stature of certain positions — I think that can be identified, but if there’s an exception to that and the guy is a good player, then that’s okay, too.”
Being a good player has helped Edelman become a pillar of the Patriots’ Dynasty 2.0, and Gunner Olszewski to make the team last year despite being an undrafted rookie defensive back coming out of Division-II. It will not help Sanu survive this year’s cutdown day, however, with Belichick’s main factor in evaluating talent remaining unchanged regardless of the promise he showed at times last year: consistency.
At a price tag of $6.5 million — fifth highest on the team and second at wide receiver behind only Edelman’s $9.7 million — Sanu simply failed to inspire enough confidence versus the younger and cheaper receiver options on the roster. Experience and impressive technique did not do the trick for him, as he still had his fair share of consistency problems in practice.
“I think there are a lot of things at that position that are subtle to the naked eye, and it really comes down to, again, that play-after-play consistency,” said Belichick. “The highlight plays stand out — and they’re important, too, one way or the other — but I would say the consistency overall is also something that you can’t lose sight of.”