By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Much has been made of the turnover at the wide receiver position for the New England Patriots, and it’s not entirely unfair. While there’s plenty of depth at training camp in terms of warm bodies, there’s very little in the way of certainty. Especially to start the season, with Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games of 2018.
Tom Brady hasn’t entered many seasons with as many question marks about his weapons. But with Brady now 41 years old and in possession of all (most?) of the “answers to the test”, the wideout worries could very well prove to be as overblown as any of the vulture-like narratives circling Patriot Place.
It’s reasonable to ponder one key question about the 2018 Patriots: if Brady can’t go to Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman to make a big play, who does he look for? And can that guy replicate what they’ve lost with now-Dolphins receiver Danny Amendola? It’s a question that won’t be answered for months, but one that should only arise when Gronkowski and Edelman aren’t there in the first place. So it’s a concern that, hopefully for their sake, the Pats don’t necessarily need to resolve at all.
Brady’s two most trusted targets over the past several seasons, Gronkowski and Edelman have been as clutch as they come in recent Super Bowl runs. But they aren’t exactly locks to both be on the field, let alone fully healthy and productive, when the calendar turns to January. With that in mind, other pieces are going to have to prove that they can be relied upon in game-changing situations the way Amendola did with remarkable consistency.
And let’s get serious, that’s the most important thing for a Brady receiver. Pick up the offense, get on the same page with No. 12, get in the right spot for him to deliver you the ball, and catch the thing. Not everyone needs to be the biggest, fastest, or most explosive player on the field.
To be fair, when you have both the talent and the trust, you get a Gronkowski, or a Randy Moss. But the continued obsession with bringing freakish home-run threats into the fold in New England, most recently with mercurial free agent Dez Bryant, has long been one of the most unnecessary debates in the region.
Brady has always been better off with guys who simply know where to be and can hold onto the ball when he puts it on their hands. Third-year wideout Malcolm Mitchell, who caught five fourth-quarter passes during the Patriots’ comeback in Super Bowl LI, has already proven himself in that regard. The big problem with Mitchell has always been health, but he strapped the pads on for the first time in training camp on Saturday. He only participated in warmups before departing for the rehab field, but it’s still a promising sign that maybe those trade rumors were premature. (UPDATE: No trade, but Mitchell will be released.)
Another fascinating development is Phillip Dorsett, who has always been a sneaky part of their plans for the receivers. He barely caught on in his first year in New England, but this is a guy they traded a quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) to acquire. They’re not going to bury him on the depth chart, let alone consider moving on at this point. Dorsett finally made his presence felt with one very big 31-yard catch in the 2017 AFC Championship against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and also caught a pass in Super Bowl LII. He’s worked his way much closer to Brady’s vaunted “circle of trust” in training camp this summer; if he’s not inside the circle at this point, he’s got a foot on the line.
There’s also a trio of big receivers that may comprise Brady’s tallest group of pass-catchers ever. Cordarrelle Patterson could still be a long way from understanding the offense the way he needs to, but when given the chance, he’s made a number of eye-popping plays down the field. Kenny Britt has slogged through a hamstring injury that cropped up in June’s mandatory minicamp, but is working his way back to a full workload and the Pats apparently still have big plans for him. The newly acquired Eric Decker is no sure thing to make the 53-man roster, but also could turn out to be a perfect fit for the system.
Chris Hogan will be the Patriots’ No. 1 receiving option for the first four games without Edelman, which would never be an ideal situation for Brady. But No. 15 has already grown to become as dependable as anyone in recent years. At this point, he’s one of the veterans of the group, a teacher for players under him on the Patriots roster. Hogan now finds himself in that kind of spot with Decker as he enters the fold.
“Well, I’ve been in that position before,” Hogan told reporters on Saturday. “You know, been in different offenses and then come to a new place and you know there’s a lot of information that probably gets thrown at you at once so you just kind of have to dissect that. Whatever best ways that they do that or you know, for me it was just kind of segmenting it out. And just answering any questions that he has.
“So for a guy like Eric [Decker] that’s been in the league for a while now, I’m sure he has a process of learning how he learns and he’s going to go about doing that the way that he does it. Just kind of be a guy that he can come to for questions and you know, give him answers the best way I can.”
More Than Just Receivers
The trust extends well beyond the wideouts, too. Even if Brady has a limited arsenal at that position, he still has Gronk at tight end. He has Super Bowl LI hero James White catching passes out of the backfield. Rex Burkhead looks to be taking a step forward in training camp after a promising but injury-shortened 2017 campaign. And emerging this summer, with a chance to make a real difference, is second-year tight end Jacob Hollister.
Everyone who’s attended Patriots practices this offseason has seen Hollister’s ascension to a prominent place on the tight end depth chart. But there’s also been an air of hesitancy – because we all remember the Zach Sudfeld era (RIP 2013-2013). There’s a difference with Hollister, though. The Patriots trusted him enough to keep him around for his full rookie season, despite barely getting him any reps on offense. It may surprise you that the Patriots rostered him for 15 out of 16 regular season games in 2017. Now, in light of how he’s looked in camp, Hollister has a chance to become a legitimate contributor to the offense in his second year.
Still, ultimately, it all comes down to Brady. As long as he’s sharp – which he has been in recent practices, after an uneven start to camp – and enough guys (probably need just 1-2) get in sync with him, the concerns over the Patriots offense shouldn’t rise to the level that they did in 2013. Certainly not 2006, when Brady’s entire cupboard was barren. Anyone preaching the proverbial Doom & Gloom™ over the coming season is essentially banking on Gronkowski and Edelman both being out, too.
And even then … how did Brady do when presented with that very situation in January? After Gronkowski had to leave with a concussion, he went 15-for-22 with 178 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Patriots on another epic playoff comeback.
“But at least he had Brandin Cooks!” Well, he basically didn’t have him in the Super Bowl two weeks later, when Malcolm Jenkins obliterated Cooks with a hit that knocked him out of the game with a concussion. Late fumble notwithstanding, without Brady the Philadelphia Eagles blow the Patriots off the field in that game. For the most part, Brady didn’t miss a beat without his most explosive receiver.
None of this is to say that there’s no cause for concern whatsoever. This isn’t a good situation. The No. 2 receiver for the first four games, and the No. 3 receiver after that, remains unsettled as training camp unfolds. But as long as Brady is still playing at a high level at age 41, this concern should be lower on the list than it has been. The offense will make it work, even if it means a relatively slow start to the regular season – but how often do the Patriots not start slowly? It’s something of an annual tradition, as will be the hysteria surrounding them around Week 5. “What’s Wrong With The Patriots?” and “Is The Dynasty Coming To An End?” will surely be headlines on the internet, and they probably won’t be as prescient as they want to be.
Brady may need a new target to replace Amendola in those key situations later in the 2018 season. Then again, he may not. And even if he does, there’s enough in his arsenal this season to have faith that they can have it figured out by the winter. This is not 2006. This is not even 2013, when Brady himself looked like as much of a problem as anyone. This is 2018, Brady is the reigning MVP, and there are bigger questions that who is going to catch the ball.
1. No Days Off?
One of the bigger, more legitimate questions on the Patriots roster is the linebacker depth behind Dont’a Hightower. One player who has a make-or-break camp in front of him is Elandon Roberts, the 2016 sixth-round pick who flashed as an effective run-stopper as a rookie but took a step back in 2017. One good quality about Roberts, however, is that he’s all about football.
As is being echoed throughout the Patriots locker room, even on “days off” you’re still expected to get your work in. Roberts told reporters on Saturday that he’s not much of a Fortnite guy; he really does live & breathe football, and that’s what he’ll be focusing on for the Patriots’ days off from full practice on Sunday and Monday.
“I just get my body right go back watch the practices on my own time to see what I need to do better,” said Roberts, who added that he wants to improve “everything” about his game this season. “Everybody’s got their own routine. I come in, probably go to the training room, get another lift in, probably jog a little bit, then go attack the film.”
Trey Flowers relayed those sentiments with a delightful quip about his diet.
“You don’t want to go into a day off and just sit at home and eat ice cream or chips or things like that,” Flowers said.
2. New Helmet Rules? They Are What They Are
The NFL’s controversial new rules regarding helmet contact are going to continue to be heavily scrutinized as the 2018 season goes along. It’s already under a microscope, after some questionable flags in Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game. It sounds like the Patriots are as mindful as they can be of the new rules, but they’ve been mum on the subject – Bill Belichick chief among them.
“We know what we know,” Belichick said on Wednesday. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Roberts didn’t sound thrilled about the new rules, which could affect linebackers as much as anyone on the field. How are hard-hitting defenders supposed to approach ball carriers under what feels like a draconian set of new mandates?
“Keep your head up. That’s it,” Roberts said.
When asked how he felt about the officiating in the Hall of Fame Game, he shrugged and said “You got me,” eliciting a roar of laughter. It’s clear that he, and likely others on the team, aren’t happy about the new rules. But it’ll also be interesting to see how Belichick coaches them up to minimize what could be an abundance of flags.
3. So about that left tackle problem…
Perhaps one of the reasons that wide receiver has become such a public concern with the Patriots is because the true No. 1 concern has already been solved. Trent Brown has been arguably the most dominant player at Patriots training camp so far, certainly on offense, and looks to have a chance to be more than just a serviceable replacement for Nate Solder at left tackle.
Brown has controlled the blind side in both 1-on-1 and team drills throughout camp, and apparently had his best day on the first one in full pads. The man is absolutely gigantic (6-foot-8, 380 pounds) and is surprisingly nimble for a player his size. If he wasn’t turning heads the way he is so far, left tackle could’ve been a major issue for a team that’s had nearly 20 years of seamless continuity at the position.
It doesn’t mean that Brown, a free agent in 2019, will last more than one season in New England, or that the question could reset a year from now. But so far, it appears that Brady will have the protection he needs on the left edge, and that’s a huge development (literally) in Foxborough.
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@example.com.