By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots are already golden in the slot. Now they need to unearth some treasure to pair with Julian Edelman on the outside.
Thanks to a Herculean effort from Edelman and a legendary performance on defense, the Patriots overcame a lack of production on the perimeter to win Super Bowl LIII over the Los Angeles Rams. Ultimately, they conquered an issue that persisted over the course of the whole 2018 season. Chris Hogan (63 snaps) came up empty on six targets, while Phillip Dorsett (26 snaps) wasn't targeted at all. Cordarrelle Patterson caught his only two targets for 14 yards.
They certainly proved they can win it all without even serviceable production outside the numbers. But ideally, they head into 2019 in a better spot than they left themselves in at Mercedez-Benz Stadium.
Looking back, all the Patriots needed was one player to become a consistent, viable weapon out of Hogan, Dorsett, or Patterson, plus recent additions like Kenny Britt, Jordan Matthews, and Eric Decker. They also still had hope for 2016 fourth-round pick Malcolm Mitchell and appeared to gain momentum with midseason addition Josh Gordon. It's incredible (or is it?) how poorly it worked out.
The first three only produced in flashes. Mitchell, Britt, and Matthews ended up released amid various injuries. Decker retired before the season. Gordon got hit with his latest suspension, and while he may be a candidate to return as a restricted free agent he did nothing to change the perception of him as unreliable.
The season was perhaps the strongest argument yet that the Patriots need someone more bankable on the outside, a star wideout who can produce at a high level every week.
But they still don't need that guy.
They need the next Mitchell - from his rookie season. The next Brandon LaFell. If you want to get even more ambitious, the next Deion Branch. Someone who can build a quick rapport with Tom Brady and reliably catch the football on out routes, comebacks, back-shoulders, and curls in the intermediate areas. There's no need to go down the "deep threat" rabbit hole again - unless Bill Belichick really wants to avoid the revolving door he just had this season. But either way, they'd be better off entering camp with a more promising group that they had last summer.
The 2018 season proved, as strikingly as ever, that consistent and reliable outside targets aren't easy to find for this system. But the Pats still don't need to devote massive resources to accomplish that goal.
With Hogan, Dorsett, and Patterson all set to hit unrestricted free agency, it's unlikely the Patriots would bring back more than maybe one of them. The former two had proven themselves as solid complementary pieces, but struggled to produce consistently in more prominent roles against top cornerbacks. Patterson, as he has for his whole career, mainly worked when getting the ball out of the backfield rather than going out for a pass. The rest of the receivers on the roster or IR at the end of the season are more slot guys to stash and develop behind Edelman.
Another reset is inevitable. And one of the Patriots' top offseason priorities will be to make sure that this reset goes smoother than the last one.
The likely options on the open market aren't exciting on paper. But then again, neither was LaFell when he first signed here. Nobody predicted that Mitchell would be a key piece of the Super Bowl LI comeback as a rookie. It's important to find the qualities that could make these players a fit for the Pats outside the numbers, and not to focus on age or lack of pedigree. The Patriots have the luxury of confidence that they can make it work.
-- Randall Cobb is a weapon that would've looked great in a Patriots uniform earlier in his career. Now 29 years old, Cobb doesn't have the same burst he once did and has trouble staying healthy. But now's the time to get him if the Pats want to get a good deal. And if any group can figure out a way to revitalize Cobb's career and use him in a variety of ways, it's Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Brady.
-- The speedy John Brown has built a reputation as a pure downfield burner, and to be certain he can run the deep post. But he's underrated as a route-runner for what Brady would want, and could have a chance to take it to the next level with the best quarterback of his career throwing him the ball.
-- Kansas City's Chris Conley could give the Patriots a boost in the red zone, an area that slipped in 2018 due to a drop-off in production for Rob Gronkowski. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Conley is a big target with big potential against one-on-one coverage - if he can hold on to the ball. He's had drop issues with the Chiefs, but if he can solve that problem in New England, perhaps the change of scenery does him good. And maybe he can improve the Pats' red zone TD percentage (62.9 percent), which slipped to 12th in the NFL in 2018, their first time outside the top-10 since 2009.
-- Speaking of a big target, the 6-foot-4 Devin Funchess has already proven himself as a dangerous one-on-one receiver with his catch radius and ability to high-point the ball. He started off raw as a route-runner but has shown improvement. And he's not afraid to run in-cuts or hitches over the middle, either. The emergence of D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel in Carolina is making Funchess a likely departure, and potentially a good value in Foxborough.
-- Donte Moncrief possesses the physical tools, but has never quite put it all together. It doesn't help that he waded through turmoil in his final three seasons with the Colts, then had Blake Bortles throwing to him in his first year in Jacksonville. If the Patriots can get him at a reasonable price, perhaps New England is where he realizes the potential he's flashed with his speed and athleticism.
Old friends and their clones
Despite the need to improve on the outside, there's no shortage of inside options set to hit the market and at the end of the day they are where Brady breads his butter. So you'll understandably hear a lot about Golden Tate, Adam Humphries, Jamison Crowder, and Cole Beasley in the coming weeks.
It's fair to wonder if the Pats will also look to bolster their roster in the slot as well as on the perimeter. After all, part of what helped make guys like LaFell and Mitchell so effective is having both Edelman and Danny Amendola on the field to draw attention toward the middle of the field.
Speaking of Amendola, he's expected to be released after one year with the Dolphins and would be a logical choice to come back to the Patriots. It may simply depend on whether Belichick is able to forget about the uncommonly controversial comments Amendola made to ESPN shortly after his departure a year ago.
Matthews, meanwhile, ended up signing with the Eagles and playing in 14 games for them. He only caught 20 passes for 300 yards and 2 touchdowns, but at least he saw the field. At this point it shouldn't be a shock if he came back on the cheap, and got a second chance at making it through training camp unscathed.
Growing the next crop
Of course, the Patriots can also look to the draft to add at receiver. They did last year with sixth-round slot receiver Braxton Berrios out of Miami, who still has a chance to develop here. Despite his unfortunate history of knee injuries, Mitchell became a viable weapon for Brady by the halfway point of his rookie season.
The draft will be covered more in-depth in the coming weeks, but the main focus of this story is on the free agent market. The Patriots basically have only one receiver spot set for next September's 53-man roster, and the rest won't all be rookies.
Speculating on Antonio Brown and dreaming of Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones coming to New England are exciting discussions to have. They're just not terribly realistic. It's more likely the Patriots take another handful of shots at finding a cost-effective outside receiver group that sticks. The approach failed spectacularly in the end against the Rams, but the Super Bowl isn't likely to spark a radical change in the way they do business.
This year, the same challenge is back on the table. Like he did at so many other spots on the roster this past season, it's time for Belichick to get it right at receiver.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and 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].