By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
It's unfortunate that Julian Edelman has to miss time as he recovers from a reported knee operation, and perhaps the book isn't closed on his Patriots career just yet. But his absence will open up opportunities for younger receivers who have a chance to make the Patriots' offensive operation better.
Edelman clearly hasn't been himself for most of the season, certainly not since hauling in eight catches for 179 yards against the Seattle Seahawks. His game-changing ability to make big catches in big situations showed up in that thrilling flash. But ultimately Edelman could not overcome the kind of physical breakdown that's not unsurprising to see in a 34-year-old receiver with his level of wear & tear.
Drops have become more of a concern late in Edelman's career, but this season, so has his typically elite ability to get separation. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, Edelman's average separation is 2.7 yards, tied for 55th among all receivers. Compare that to his teammate, Damiere Byrd, who is also at 2.7 but is not expected to be any more than a complementary receiver.
Surprisingly enough, N'Keal Harry's average separation this season is 3.0 yards - still just 33rd among receivers, but like most advanced stats, they don't tell the whole story. Harry (19 catches) has a higher average separation than Stefon Diggs (2.8, 48 catches) and the same as Tyler Boyd (48 catches). Perhaps he'd be showing up more on the stat sheet if just one of the Patriots' quarterbacks could play at even an average level.
Harry won't be available on Sunday at the Buffalo Bills, either, as he works through the NFL's concussion protocol. But the Patriots' first offensive test without Edelman since Week 4 of the 2018 season forces Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to find targets for younger wideouts such as Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski.
The tradeoff may be that Meyers, Olszewski, and others do not have the lockdown knowledge of the Patriots' system that Edelman does. But at this stage of their careers, they may be a safer bet to gain separation and reliably catch the ball. And quarterback Cam Newton, who understandably had high praise for Edelman in the wake of the injury news, won't feel compelled to force the ball his way, and work more toward making simpler plays to open receivers rather than trying to do too much.
“I have to check on him. He’s my guy. His presence was missed today," said Newton, who has admitted he's pressing and struggling with the "learning curve" of the Patriots offense. "What he brings to this team, he’s more than just an unsung hero. He is everything the Patriots represent. Heart, tough, resilient, gritty. That’s Julian Edelman."
Meyers has shown an ability to play as either an outside receiver or a big slot type. He was one of the Patriots' only players to show up in last Sunday's loss to the 49ers, as he hauled in four catches for 60 yards in a relief appearance. He's never lacked confidence, and now his opportunity has never been greater.
"As soon as I got here one of the things I heard the most was the more you can do, and I kind of just tried to show everybody I can do multiple things and I can be reliable at different positions," Meyers said Thursday. "I’m not exactly where I want to be but I feel like I’ve taken a couple of good steps forward, just from last year to this year, being able to learn all the different positions and show that I can go out and use different skillsets to compete in different spots."
Meyers or Olszewski may not be up to the task of replacing Edelman's production. But it can't hurt to find out.
"One week at a time" takes on a whole new meaning
For years, decades even, the Patriots used their "one week at a time" approach as fuel for their unparalleled success. It didn't matter which second-rate organization Tom Brady and Bill Belichick had just taken to the woodshed the week before, each new game starts over. It's how they've mostly avoided letdowns against inferior opponents.
But in 2020 - with Brady gone, the Broncos delivering an early upset, and the 49ers handing Belichick and Cam Newton one of the ugliest ass-kickings of their careers - the Patriots are in uncharted territory. But as defensive captain Devin McCourty explained earlier this week, the "one week at a time" approach they've taken for so many years may have them prepared to finally right the ship.
"We lose three straight, it’s a lot easier to talk about one week at a time, because you're just searching to go get that win," McCourty said Wednesday. "So I think the mentality throughout the years for guys that have been here, have an understanding of how important each week is, we've really got to take that up a notch and make sure we all stay dialed in and not look at big-picture, because looking at big-picture when you're doing well or doing bad, it still can catch up to you and harm you as a team.
"So I think for us, we've just got to stay locked in and try to go out there and get a win. And obviously, you know, when you're playing the top team in your division, it's pretty easy to lock in on that game. I would say with us 2-4, there's nothing for us to look forward to other than the next game. I think that's something we did a good job today of going out there and having a good practice Like I've said before, it's about stringing it together and being consistent."
Keene on versatility
Patriots rookie tight end Dalton Keene has potential to be much more than that. His use in a variety of roles in college likely precipitated the Patriots' decision to draft him with the 101st pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He played as an in-line tight end and also as a slot receiver, fullback, and even split out wide.
Keene's versatility was on display as soon as his NFL debut last Sunday. Thanks to data compiled by NESN's Doug Kyed, we know that out of 24 offensive snaps, Keene played most often in the slot (12 snaps). He also played nine snaps as an in-line tight end, two split out wide, and one in the backfield. But Keene reminded reporters on Thursday that he has a long way to go as he jumps to a whole new level of competition.
"I'd say it's a little bit different just because of the speed of the game and how complex the playbook is," Keene said, when asked about playing multiple positions in college vs. the NFL. "There's definitely a lot to learn still but I think Virginia Tech prepared me well for that flexibility."
That flexibility is without question something that Belichick and McDaniels are already looking to utilize. Keene is questionable for Sunday after being limited with a knee injury on Friday, but when he takes the field, he should add an element of unpredictability - and, hopefully, more production at tight end.
The weather forecast for Buffalo on Sunday calls for rain and winds in the range of 20-30 mph. That could really take the air out of the Bills' passing game, and perhaps play into the Patriots' hands - in all three phases.
Belichick and Newton may already be planning to run the ball more, anyway. But the harsh elements could also have an impact on special teams. The Patriots scored the only touchdown in last season's game at Buffalo when Matthew Slater recovered a blocked punt by J.C. Jackson. Veteran kicker Nick Folk and second-year punter Jake Bailey, meanwhile, will have to continue their sneaky-strong starts to the seasonin treacherous conditions.
"Obviously in Buffalo it can change at the drop of a hat," Folk said. "So that's one thing, up here we practice a lot outside and get a lot of that good weather to practice in. So we got a good couple days in early in the week and we can pray that it'll be better, but you never know up in Buffalo."
"It’s going to be a fun game. We’re preparing for all the elements," Bailey said. "For my job, it kind of comes to if it is really windy you don’t want the ball to be in the a whole lot when you’re dropping the ball for the punt. You kind of just want to hit it out of your hand. In terms of kickoffs, it’s kind of you just to cut the wind the best you can. I get a lot of practice in the elements here out on the practice field and I am excited for a good challenge.”
Sports Hub Sidelines Podcast
Ty Anderson and I went in-depth on the Patriots' recent struggles and how to turn their season around. Have a listen below. Patriots talk starts at 11:46.
Alex Barth and I talk Patriots every single week on 985TheSportsHub.com. Listen below for the Week 8 podcast, where we discuss the state of the Pats' receiver corps, Cam Newton's struggles, and the potential for a Stephon Gilmore trade.
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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].