New England Patriots

By Ty Anderson,

The New England Patriots could have lost Friday’s preseason meeting with the Carolina Panthers by a billion points and it would not have mattered. At all. It’s the preseason, and you’re an absolute lunatic if you truly invest your precious time and energy in the win-loss of such a slate. In fact, I must admit that only the on-field time for Tom Brady’s offense really mattered.

That’s because that’s where things are strangely up in the air for the Patriots given where they are in the now.

At least in comparison to where they were not even a month ago.

I mean, just forget about the fact that both Rex Burkhead and 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel are currently two sneaky-big injuries at the running back position for the Patriots. And that offensive lineman Marcus Cannon remains on the shelf.

As almost everybody on Earth has mentioned by now, Jordan Matthews is gone. Malcolm Mitchell is gone. And now Kenny Britt is gone. All three players, who were released because they simply couldn’t get healthy enough to get on the field, were expected to play big roles for a New England receiving corps that had already lost Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks in the offseason. Free agent wideout Dez Bryant still isn’t here, and from all indications, that’s not going to change anytime soon.

In essence, the Patriots — and Brady — seemingly have what they have at wideout. (And to most, that’s not much.)

This has made Phillip Dorsett your No. 3 receiver by default — No. 2 receiver for the first four weeks with Julian Edelman suspended for a PED violation, at that — and that seemed less than ideal. At least if you were going off Dorsett’s limited use last season (he caught just 12 passes for 194 yards and no touchdowns), and last week’s with-Brady performance that saw him haul in just one of his three targets for a measly four yards. Had Dorsett put forth another night like that — even in the preseason, or maybe especially in the preseason — the infamous Brady Circle of Trust would have closed faster than it did for Joey Galloway.

But it was on Friday that Dorsett finally showed tangible growth, and that Brady finally showed faith in Dorsett as a result.

Noticing lax coverage on the outside, Brady quickly called an audible and whipped a ball to Dorsett, who hauled it in and turned the screen into a 16-yard gain. Dorsett was also able to leap up and haul in a high throw from Brady for an eight-yard gain. And with the Patriots going for it on 4th and 3, Brady did not hesitate — not even a little bit — to go to Dorsett for the conversion.

Pulled from the game after the first half with the rest of New England’s offensive starters, Dorsett’s night featured a perfect 4-for-4 on catches and targets, and his 36 receiving yards were the most among all Patriot starters.

Imagining this happening even a week ago — preseason or not — seems almost impossible.

“Phil did a good job [tonight], he made some good plays,” Brady said after the loss. “He’s done a good job through the spring and through training camp. He’s been dependable, he’s been out there, and it’s been great to watch.”

Nearly echoing Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who has always felt that dependability beats ability, Dorsett’s work in practice and training camp finally paid off. Before Brady lost faith in him, too, which is perhaps the most important detail of all in this.

“We got him late [in the summer] last year, and I think he’s been just grinding it out trying to find a role. And he’s done a great job with his opportunities,” Brady said of Dorsett. “I think that’s how you gotta earn the trust of the coaches and your teammates is to get out there under real, live circumstances; Play clocks, situations, and signals.”

And it could have not come at a better time, all things considered.

Eric Decker, who has had his struggles with drops and getting involved with Brady throughout training camp and into the preseason, did not get into the game until the second half. Even then, he was hardly involved, with just two catches totaling 12 yards on five targets from Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer. At this point, the veteran Decker even making the team would feel like a “there’s nobody else that’s seized the spot” situation more than anything close to Decker legitimately earning his spot.

Riley McCarron, meanwhile got some reps with the first team offense late in the first half, but was not targeted as a focal point of the offense until Hoyer drew into action in the second half. Given his lack of in-game work with Brady, it’s hard to imagine him taking a massive leap up the depth chart by Week 1. On a similar note, Braxton Berrios missed his second preseason game in a row, and Devin Lucien did not draw in until Brady was already sitting comfortably on the sidelines.

And moving beyond the wide receiver spot, Brady and the Patriots have still yet to get an in-game look at the promise of a two-tight end look with Rob Gronkowski and second-year pro Jacob Hollister. By now, we know the history of such a threat, with the duo’s health being the only thing that’s ever truly held it back from being the Patriots’ most devastating weapon.

If this game was indeed the dress rehearsal and the ‘final showing’ of Brady’s preseason, the Patriots needed the hope of a potential answer besides the ever-dependable Chris Hogan and James White to emerge. And it did with Dorsett’s performance.

It may not be enough for Dorsett to emerge as a legitimate No. 2 wideout by the year’s end, of course, nor should you hitch your wagon to that just yet. But it’s enough for Brady to at least believe in the idea that Dorsett has the skills and know-how for the Patriots to simply survive four weeks without the sure-thing Edelman on the field as his preferred No. 1 target in crunch time.

“We’re gonna have to be all be on the same page [in Week 1],” the 41-year-old Brady, who is almost certainly not playing a single snap in next week’s preseason finale, acknowledged. “We got two weeks to figure out who’s gonna be out there doing it.”

Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 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 Ty? Yell at him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.