The Patriots’ wide receiver production in 2019, outside of Julian Edelman, was among the worst in the NFL. Despite last seasons’ struggles, all offseason long optimism has grown surrounding the group’s ability to bounce back in 2020. Now that we’re less than three weeks away from the regular season, it’s time to assess where the group currently stands. In this article, we’ll give you a breakdown of our thoughts on the current state of the wide receiver group.
Training Camp Performance
Up to this point in training camp, the Patriots’ secondary holds a strong advantage over the wide receiver group. When evaluating the performance of the wideouts, one key question sticks out; Is the lack of standout moments in camp a reflection of continued struggles as a receiving core or the cause of an elite secondary? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. It’s hard for any NFL receiver to find success against this secondary, but it’s also concerning that some of the same issues that plagued last seasons’ offense are already popping up this early in training camp. Don’t ring the alarm bells yet though. It’s still early in camp but as practice elevates in intensity, it’s something to keep an eye on.
Now that we’ve covered the receivers’ training camp performance, let’s dive a little deeper into the individual players that make up the group. When looking at the Patriots’ roster, you can separate the Patriots’ wideouts into five separate categories.
Practice Squad Candidates: Isaiah Zuber, Will Hastings
Both Isaiah Zuber and Will Hastings came into New England as undrafted rookie free agents. Both need huge success at training camp to have a shot at the final roster, and up to this point, that hasn’t happened. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, especially considering the circumstances surrounding this year’s offseason. A shortened training camp and no preseason games really put undrafted rookie free agents at a disadvantage.
Capable of Stealing a Roster Spot: Jeff Thomas, Devin Ross
You might think fellow undrafted rookie free agent Jeff Thomas falls in the same category as Zuber and Hastings, but his situation is a little different. While ultimately Thomas may end up on the practice squad, his pure talent gives him a shot at the final roster. We recently published a film breakdown on Thomas and his limitless upside, you can find it here. Thomas’s battle to make the roster will be tough as he’s missed a ton of practice time. With time being limited to prove worthy of a roster spot, Thomas needs to find himself consistently out on the practice field. Without the practice reps, it feels like he’ll be a prime practice squad candidate.
Who would have thought Devin Ross would be the breakout wide receiver of training camp? Ross started his career in Tennesse as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He bounced around with both the Titans and the Eagles until he found his way to New England last October. His quickness, route running, and downfield playmaking ability has been a bright spot up to this point in camp. The hype for Ross is building, but he needs to put together another string of solid performances to have a good shot at making the roster.
One thing that stands out for both Thomas and Ross is their quickness, something the 2019 wide receiver group sorely lacked. Maybe both players end up on the practice squad, but it’s important to note these two wideouts are a tier ahead of the previously mentioned practice squad candidates.
Potenital X-Factors: Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski
It’s very possible Ross or Thomas steal a roster spot, but barring that possibility, the group of Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, and Gunner Olszewski seem to have the inside track to fill the last couple roster spots at wide receiver. Is it fair to have huge expectations for this group? No, and that’s why they fall under the category of potential X-factors. Of course, it’d be nice if all three players stepped out in a big way, but realistically the Patriots can’t rely on that to happen. If only one or two from this group stand out in the regular season, it’s a huge plus for the offense.
Out of the bunch, Byrd feels like the best bet to breakout. Byrd has great speed, enough to be a threat to opposing defenses. Plus, he has some experience playing with Cam Newton.
Just last season with the Cardinals, Byrd had 32 catches for 359 yards in only 11 games. Here’s an example of the kind of threat Byrd can be (bottom of the screen #14).
Unfortunately, injuries have really held him back. Byrd has been placed on injured reserve three times in his four-year career. If he can stay healthy, we like Byrd to be a solid contributor.
Next on the list is Jakobi Meyers. We did a film breakdown on Meyers so we’ll keep it brief, you can read it here. Meyers made the team after breaking out in training camp last season. He followed up training camp with a solid rookie season. Meyers has been fairly quiet thus far in this year’s training camp, which could lead to some suggestion he gets cut. A second-year jump from Meyers would be huge for the Patriots’ offense.
Lastly, let’s talk about Gunner Olszewski. After sticking on the 2019 roster due to his return ability, Olszewski is now looking to stick on the 2020 roster because of his improved play at wideout. Olszewski has reportedly made major improvements to his game over the summer and he’s showing them off in training camp. Improved route running, faster, and quicker are all things we’ve heard about Olszewski. On the flip side, Olszewski has also struggled with drops. We wouldn’t say he’s a roster lock, but if he can consistently show improvement his chances of making the team look good.
Need to Step Up: Mohamed Sanu, N’Keal Harry
For the Patriots’ offense to exceed expectations, they need to see improved production from Mohamed Sanu and N’Keal Harry.
Sanu lacked production with New England but it’s fair to wonder how much that had to do with his health. Last season, Sanu had 10 catches against Baltimore, injured his foot the next week in Philadelphia, and never exceeded more than three catches in a game the rest of the year. To us, Sanu would be most effective as a number three option. Unfortunately, the lack of a number two receiver, likely means Sanu will be asked to fill that role. He’s another receiver who’s had a quiet start to training camp.
As for N’Keal Harry, it’s a more complicated issue. If you were expecting Harry to step into training camp and create a ton of separation, you’re going to be disappointed. He needs to improve in that area no doubt, but Harry is likely never to be a great separator, as he wasn’t in college either. That’s not the name of his game. What he does do well is win jump balls. He’s also very good with the ball in his hands.
N’Keal Harry is such a dynamic runner. One thing I expect the Patriots to do more of is get the ball to N’Keal Harry in space. Let him create. pic.twitter.com/hjg7MsNVu0— Pats Buzz (@PatsBuzz) July 9, 2020
We expect, Josh McDaniels to play into those strengths this season. In one of our previously released film breakdowns, we dissected Harry’s rookie season, you can find it here.
So far, training camp for the second-year wideout has been uneventful. Harry has made some plays, but overall he hasn’t stood out the way you’d hope. Additionally, he’s already missed some practices. The cause isn’t known, so we won’t speculate, but after missing a ton of practice and game time in 2019 due to injury, Harry needs all the reps he can get. Don’t get too down on Harry just yet. It’s still early in camp leaving Harry plenty of time to turn it around.
The Number One: Julian Edelman
Julian Edelman is the heart and soul of the Patriots’ wide receiver corps. Last season, Edelman had 100 catches 1,117 yards and carried the group despite serious injuries and a barrage of double teams. Asking Edelman to carry the group again this season isn’t ideal. With that being said, we still expect Edelman to remain the number one guy, as he’s the best wideout on the roster.
Let us know how you view the wide receiver group in the comments below!