For the last 12 years, but especially from 2013 on, Julian Edelman has been an integral part of the New England Patriots’ wide receiver position. The former seventh-round draft pick served as a versatile player inside the team’s attack, aligning both in the slot and split out wide — all while showing elite quickness, vision and chemistry with quarterbacks Tom Brady and, later, Cam Newton.
The Patriots’ wide receiver group therefore lost its most experienced and proven weapon when Edelman was released before he announced his retirement on Monday. Even though he had dealt with his fair share of injuries over the last two years, he was still a player to account for from the defensive perspective whenever he was on the field.
Now, New England will have to find a way to replace his productivity as well as his leadership and status as a true go-to guy within the offense.
What will the Patriots do? While it is certainly possible one or more players get added in the draft and subsequent rookie free agency period, they will start with the players already under contract. New England currently has nine wideouts employed, and at least four of those players are expected to be on the 53-man roster come the regular season as well.
Let’s take a look at the group, while always keeping in mind that the positional labels attached to each player are not exclusive and that most are capable of playing multiple positions within the Patriots’ flexible offensive scheme.
The X-receiver or split end is usually aligned widest from the tight end and on the line of scrimmage, thus ineligible to motion before the snap. He oftentimes offers a bigger frame while playing on the perimeter.
Nelson Agholor, N’Keal Harry, Kristian Wilkerson, Devin Smith, Matthew Slater
New England invested considerable resources in upgrading its boundary receiver group in free agency: Nelson Agholor arrived on a two-year, $22 million contract to serve as a deep ball target and physical presence at the X position. Like fellow former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry, Agholor projects to not be used solely on the outside but also see some other looks as well to take advantage of coverages and matchups.
As for Harry, he has been the subject of trade speculation this offseason and could be on the move if an attractive offer came along. For the time being, however, he is still part of New England’s pass catching corps. What his role will look like in 2021 is uncertain, though. Ideally, the Patriots will find a way to use him in more specialized fashion to take advantage of his frame as well as his physicality both down the field and at the line of scrimmage.
With the exception of special teams ace Matthew Slater, who will not see much if any offensive action this year, the other X-receivers currently under contract are little more than depth options competing for backup spots over the summer.
The Z-receiver or flanker is usually aligned off the line of scrimmage, thus eligible to motion before the snap. His skillset oftentimes is more nuanced than that of his X-counterpart.
Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Isaiah Zuber
With Edelman no longer part of the Z-receiver group, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers are the logical successors among the players currently under contract in New England. Whereas Bourne is coming off an encouraging three-year stint with the San Francisco 49ers and offers the short-area fluidity, football IQ and route-running skills to succeed as a go-to receiver similar to Edelman, Meyers already played that role last year.
After Edelman’s season effectively came to an end in late October, Meyers took over the number one role within the offense. While not the most impressive athlete, his smarts and chemistry with quarterback Cam Newton allowed him to finish the season as the Patriots’ number one wide receiver in both catches (59) and yards (729).
As for Isaiah Zuber, he saw some action as a practice squad elevatee. Like Kristian Wilkerson and Devin Smith listed under the X-category, he is projected to compete for a depth or practice squad spot at best.
The slot receiver aligns inside the formation, meaning somewhere between the line of scrimmage and another boundary receiver. He plays a physically taxing role and has to win with quickness more than straight-line speed.
While Gunner Olszewski saw most of his action over his first two years in the league as a punt returner, he could be given increased looks on offense as well. After all, he best fits the profile of a slot receiver — a position that also saw a lot of Edelman over the last 12 years. New England already employed him as a slot on 63 percent of his offensive snaps last season, a possible sign of things to come.
Quincy Adeboyejo, Damiere Byrd
The Patriots still have two members of their 2020 wide receiver payroll on the list of unrestricted free agents, although only Damiere Byrd appears to be a realistic candidate to be brought back.
As opposed to Quincy Adeboyejo, who entered the open market after New England declined to tender him in restricted free agency, Byrd has had some moments with the organization: he caught 47 passes for 604 yards and a touchdown last year. Byrd is best suited to serve as a role player, though, and not in the starter-caliber capacity the Patriots employed him last season.