By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Can Chris Hogan be a true No. 1 receiver?
He's almost certainly going to have to fill that role for the first four games of the 2018 season in New England, which will be played without Julian Edelman and against some of the Pats' top competition in the conference. It'll give Hogan a huge bump on fantasy draft charts and it's possible he pans out in that regard. That doesn't mean it's a comfortable situation for the Pats at receiver.
The likelihood? Patriots figure it all out and score their points anyway. The reality? Tom Brady will be without his most trusted, prolific target for four more games after playing the entire 2017 season with Edelman sidelined.
Also part of the reality for the 2018 Patriots is their suddenly-wide-open depth chart at wide receiver. It's the spot where consistently viable weapons could still emerge for Brady, but also where the team enters training camp with arguably the most uncertainty of any positional group.
Along with special teams captain Matthew Slater and likely kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson, the Patriots will hit the Gillette Stadium practice fields starting Thursday, July 26 with seven receivers in addition to Edelman and Hogan. As individuals, they have assorted skill sets and varying probabilities to make the 53-man roster. But, especially for the first four games without Edelman, there's as much competition as ever to fill those top spots.
In 2017, the Patriots mostly rolled with 3-4 (not counting Slater) receivers on the active roster. For a few games, while Hogan was out as well as Edelman, they were comfortable rolling with only Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, and Phillip Dorsett.
Assuming they feel good running that same offense, they now have to replace at least one of those spots. Amendola departed for the Miami Dolphins as a free agent and Cooks was traded to the Los Angeles Rams for a package including the 23rd pick in the 2018 draft, which they used to draft Georgia offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn.
With or without Edelman, Hogan is a virtual lock to be one of the most targeted wideouts on the roster. Dorsett was hardly ever a factor in 2017, but did gain Brady's trust over the course of the season and also made a huge catch to help the Pats come back against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game. By those virtues, Hogan and Dorsett enter camp as the likely lead dogs to take the two starting outside receiver spots.
That fourth spot, and the third when Edelman sits, is where the big questions begin.
Edelman is out for Weeks 1-4 against Houston, Jacksonville, Detroit, and Miami. During that time the Patriots will either have to continue finding ways to score without much of a slot presence, as they did in 2017, or find a way to replace what Edelman does with who's left on the roster. Blindsided by Edelman's ACL tear late in the 2017 preseason, the Pats are much better prepared to withstand that loss this time.
In The Slot...
The favorite to be the fourth receiver behind Edelman, Hogan, and Dorsett is also their most likely candidate to take the majority of slot duties while No. 11 is suspended. At 6-foot-3, former Eagles and Bills receiver Jordan Matthews isn't the prototypical Patriots slot weapon. But he's always been more of an inside guy than outside, with the size and explosiveness to win tight battles for the ball and get separation over the middle of the field. If he can prove he still has the physical tools to maximize that skill set, grasp the Patriots playbook well, and - most importantly - gain a rapport with Brady, he has a chance to be a legitimate threat and a unique fit for the Patriots offense.
There's no telling whether Matthews will fit in well at this point, but it's encouraging that he's putting the work in. Matthews was the first offensive player on the field for all three days of minicamp in June.
Elsewhere, the Pats will have to come up with a sort of "committee" approach to replicating Edelman's skill set the best they can. They have two slot receivers who are closer to the traditional model of Brady's trusted inside guys: second-year receiver Riley McCarron out of Iowa, and rookie Braxton Berrios from Miami.
Though Berrios is fresh in everyone's minds after getting drafted in the sixth round of the 2018 draft, he wasn't ready to fully participate in minicamp. McCarron, however, did get a good share of reps with Brady throwing him the ball, and also returned punts in team drills. The former Texans practice squad receiver, whom Bill O'Brien compared to Wes Welker, should be considered a strong sleeper candidate to deliver some value for the offense, particularly early on while Edelman is out.
On The Outside...
By all accounts, the Patriots still love Malcolm Mitchell. The third-year wideout's most recent performance is still Super Bowl LI, where five of his six catches came in the fourth quarter and helped drive the Patriots' historic comeback. He missed the entire 2017 season due to knee problems, but if healthy and managed well (like Amendola was), he still has the upside to be a real weapon for Brady on the outside.
However, it's impossible to gauge how much Mitchell can be trusted just to stay on the field. Mitchell suddenly dropped out of the active minicamp participants and his status for training camp is uncertain at this point. If he's once again unable to get or stay healthy, the Pats will need to turn to other candidates for the traditional "X" and "Z" receivers.
In the absence of Edelman, there could be a need for a traditional outside receiver if Hogan moves inside. That's why Kenny Britt still has a legitimate opportunity in front of him. Nobody at the position has his combination of size and hands. The veteran receiver made a few big catches from Brady on the first day of minicamp. But he's also been a guy who struggles with his durability, and the problem reared its ugly head again as he tweaked his leg during a drill, which limited him for the rest of the week.
Cody Hollister remains far behind most of the rest of the pack at receiver, as well as his twin brother Jacob, who looks to be making some headway at tight end. He'll be a long shot to make the roster as a receiver for the offense.
Who Will Emerge?
The Patriots not only have limited options behind Edelman on the receiver depth chart, some of their most promising options haven't been reliable to avoid the injury bug. And besides Hogan and Mitchell, they're nowhere near Amendola in terms of trust with Brady and proven performance.
There may be more hope for Matthews than any other addition to the team at receiver, since he knows how to play inside. It's more outside the numbers where the concerns could start bubbling to the surface, especially while Edelman is out and if Dorsett can't seize a starting spot after sticking around for all of last season.
Brady may ultimately gel with Matthews, or get the best out of Dorsett, or develop a new big target in Britt, or transform McCarron into the next Welker. Maybe all those things happen. But there's still a receiver battle to be waged in July and August at Gillette, which will be worth following as much as any football storyline in Foxboro. At that position on the roster, there are minimal guarantees.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].