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Patriots 2021 offseason preview: New England needs to upgrade its wide receiver position

Related: Patriots offseason preview: Fullback position appears to be in good hands

NFL: New England Patriots at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with eight teams left standing, the New England Patriots are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: after not qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2008, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the 7-9 squad has a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins.

With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue things at wide receiver.

Quincy Adeboyejo

Age: 25

Experience: 4

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17 if not signed to an exclusive rights tender at that point.

2020 review: After ending his 2019 campaign the Patriots’ practice squad, Adeboyejo was signed to a futures contract by the team through the 2020 season. However, the Ole Miss product was waived with an injury designation during training camp and later reverted to New England’s injured reserve list — ending his fourth season in the NFL before it even began.

2021 preview: Adeboyejo’s future is very much in question after he did not contribute to the team so far and ended 2020 on IR. He could still be tendered as an exclusive rights free agent, though, to give the team an additional and comparatively cheap option at wide receiver.

Damiere Byrd

Age: 27

Experience: 6

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: Byrd signed a one-year, $1.6 million deal with the Patriots during last year’s free agency and had a solid season with the club: appearing in all 16 games — one of just two skill position players to do that — he finished with 47 catches for 604 yards and a touchdown. Along the way he also led all of New England’s wide receivers in snaps and served as the de facto number one at the position throughout the year.

Byrd was solid, setting new career highs in targets, yards, receptions and snaps. That said, he certainly appears to be better suited in a complementary role rather than a top-level receiver. Still, considering the circumstances, he had a good year.

2021 preview: Despite his solid performance in 2020, Byrd is not expected to break the bank as an unrestricted free agent. Accordingly, the Patriots could have him back next season on a rather cheap deal — while making upgrading around him a priority to have him play a more natural role as a rotational and package-specific wide receiver instead of a WR1.

Julian Edelman

Age: 34

Experience: 12

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Edelman has a salary cap hit of $6.1 million in 2021.

2020 review: 2020 was a challenge for Julian Edelman. The Patriots’ longest-tenure pure wideout did not just lose his long-time quarterback in free agency, he also had to undergo a series of medical procedures. When the team reconvened for training camp, Edelman was therefore initially on the physically unable to perform list. He did eventually return off of it, however, and played a prominent role for New England’s passing offense early in the season.

However, he played a smaller role than in year’s past and was listed on the injury report with a knee ailment along the way. He eventually decided to undergo a minor procedure that forced the team to place him on injured reserve. Edelman did return to practice in December, but never was activated to the 53-man roster — ending his season on the sidelines and with his worst output since 2012: he caught just 21 passes for 315 yards.

To top things off, he also had a short stint on the Coronavirus reserve list.

2021 preview: Turning 35 in May and having struggled with a series of injuries recently, Edelman’s future appears to be up in the air. We do know two things, however: he is still under contract — albeit at a salary cap number that does not seem sustainable from the Patriots’ perspective — while the team itself will have to find a replacement that can serve as the go-to guy for whoever the next quarterback will be.

N’Keal Harry

Age: 23

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Harry has a salary cap hit of $2.75 million in 2021.

2020 review: Coming off a rookie season that was dominated by growing and literal pain, the former first-round draft pick had a second disappointing season. While Harry did manage to appear in 14 games and improve his numbers across the board, he still failed to take over as the number one wide receiver his draft status would suggest he should be at this point in his career.

All in all, Harry finished Year Two with 33 receptions for 309 yards and two touchdowns. By the end of the season, he essentially served as the third option behind playing time leaders Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers.

2021 preview: Harry’s development over the first two years of his pro career has not gone as planned, but the 23-year-old will still not go anywhere in 2021 unless the Patriots decide to trade him. His contract is still manageable while he showed some of the traits that did make him a first-round draft pick just two years ago. The question is whether or not he can build on those in Year Three, and thus give the team a much-needed high-quality option at the wide receiver position.

Marqise Lee

Age: 29

Experience: 7

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Lee has a salary cap hit of $987,500 in 2021.

2020 review: The Patriots added Marqise Lee to a one-year contract in late April, but he never appeared in a game for the team: the former second-round draft pick decided to exercise the Coronavirus opt-out clause three months after arriving in New England. He might have had a solid shot at the roster given the team’s issues at the wide receiver spot, but instead spent all of 2020 on the sidelines.

2021 preview: Lee’s contract tolled into the 2021 season after his opt-out, meaning that he is still with the team instead of heading towards free agency. The question is whether or not he will get another chance to contribute. While he is cheap, any potential upgrades made via free agency and the draft could force the team to cut dead weight. Lee might be classified as such after having caught just three passes since the 2017 season.

Jakobi Meyers

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Meyers has a salary cap hit of $853,334 in 2021.

2020 review: One of the Patriots’ breakout players in 2020, Meyers started his second year in the NFL as a depth option behind the Byrd-Harry-Edelman trio. He saw limited playing time over the first three weeks and was inactive for the two games that followed. After Harry suffered a concussion in Week 7 and Edelman underwent surgery, however, Meyers broke into the lineup and never looked back.

The former undrafted rookie free agent therefore ended the season as New England’s most productive pass catcher: Meyers saw 81 passes thrown his way of which he caught 59 for 729 yards — leading the team in all three categories. While he did not catch a touchdown all season, the former college quarterback did throw two of them. All in all, Meyers proved himself a reliable member of the Patriots’ otherwise struggling passing attack.

2021 preview: While Meyers’ future will depend on such factors as Julian Edelman’s outlook and the Patriots’ offseason investments at wide receiver, his 2020 season was an encouraging one. He therefore can be considered a lock to be back with the team in 2021 and likely play a sizable role yet again. The 24-year-old may not be an elite athlete or bona fide WR1, but he does have some tools to work with and showed a solid chemistry with quarterback Cam Newton.

Donte Moncrief

Age: 27

Experience: 7

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: After ending the 2020 season without a team following his release from the Carolina Panthers, Moncrief found his way to New England via the New York Jets: the Patriots signed him to their practice squad in November before being activated to the 53-man squad one month later. Along the way, the former second-round draft pick appeared in six games while seeing little playing time on offense and catching one 15-yard pass.

Moncrief did, however, return seven kickoffs for an average of 23.6 yards per runback — not exactly eye-popping production but enough to lead the team in that category.

2021 preview: Moncrief will not command top dollar on the open market after he enters it in mid-March, but it remains to be seen if the Patriots bring him back. He played only a marginal role for the team, and one has to wonder whether other players provide more value on offense and special teams.

Gunner Olszewski

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Olszewski has a salary cap hit of $850,834 in 2021.

2020 review: Gunner Olszewski did again not break the lineup at his listed position of wide receiver in 2020 — he caught only five passes for 62 yards and a touchdown, with a sizable part of his production coming in garbage time against the Los Angeles Chargers — but he did make a name for himself in the punt return game.

The former college defensive back ran back 20 punts for an average of 17.3 yards and also found the end zone once. Olszewski’s efficiency led to him being named first-team All-Pro at the punt return position. Him earning the honor was not a surprise: he lapped the field in punt return average in 2020.

Olszewski also returned 18 kickoffs, by the way, but his average of 23.2 yards per runback was rather mediocre.

2021 preview: While it remains to be seen how his role on offense will develop in 2021, based on his kicking game contributions alone Olszewski should have a spot on the Patriots’ roster. Ideally, he will also grow into a rotational wide receiver — or at least get another chance to do so after already looking good as a pass catcher during 2020’s training camp.

Matthew Slater

Age: 35

Experience: 13

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Slater has a salary cap hit of $3.13 million in 2021.

2020 review: Despite the unique circumstances, the 2020 season was business as usual for Slater. He again saw no action to speak of at wide receiver, but proved himself one of the best special teamers in the NFL — so much so that he was voted to his ninth Pro Bowl and, as a second-teamer, his seventh overall All-Pro team. Slater was once again tremendous in punt and kickoff coverage, and played a big role in the post-Tom Brady locker room.

2021 preview: Even though he still has another year left on his contract, Slater’s future is uncertain. Turning 36 in September, he is no lock to return for a 14th year with the Patriots. If he does decide to come back, however, he will make the team once again: not only is he a core special teamer and one of the best players his position has to offer in the NFL, but also New England’s elder statesman and most experienced player in the locker room.

Devin Smith

Age: 28

Experience: 6

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season after signing a futures contract with the Patriots.

2020 review: A former second-round selection who never lived up to his draft status because of injuries, Smith joined the Patriots’ practice squad in December. He remained their for the remainder of the 2020 season without being activated to the game day roster even once.

2021 preview: While New England did decide to sign him to a futures pact earlier this month, Smith’s long-term outlook with the organization remains murky. It would not be a surprise to see him compete for a roster spot during the spring and summer, but it would be equally unsurprising if he was let go around the start of free agency or after the draft.

Kristian Wilkerson

Age: 24

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season after signing a futures contract with the Patriots.

2020 review: Kristian Wilkerson’s NFL career started as an undrafted free agent signing by the Tennessee Titans, but he joined the Patriots’ practice squad after getting released by the team. He went on to spend his entire rookie season in New England, and was even promoted to the game day roster on one occasion. His impact was minimal, though: Wilkerson played two snaps and did not register any stats.

2021 preview: Wilkerson is in the same basic boat as the Patriots’ other practice squad futures signings: he is no lock to earn a long-term spot with the team but it would not be a surprise to see him at least get an opportunity in a New England wide receiver room that faces plenty of questions heading into 2021.

Isaiah Zuber

Age: 23

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season after signing a futures contract with the Patriots.

2020 review: After not hearing his name called during the draft, Isaiah Zuber arrived in New England as a rookie free agent. Despite getting released twice before the regular season he always found his way back and eventually even played in four games. Zuber finished his first year in the NFL with two receptions for 29 yards and two carries for 21.

2021 preview: Zuber earning some in-game experience was notable in 2020, but not necessarily a sign of him getting a bigger role moving forward. Still, if the team feels he can build on his rookie campaign he should get another shot at cracking the rotation this offseason and training camp — regardless of other moves made by the team until then.