The New England Patriots open training camp on July 24. To get you ready, we will go through the roster position by position, highlighting the story lines, battles, and key players. We continue with the wide receiver position.
Tom Brady and his new cast of receivers had trouble getting on the same page, but that was last year. This year, he is blessed with far more continuity at the position than he had last year, when at the start of the season, he was without his top five targets from the year before. Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, and Brandon LaFell look locked in to the roster, but the other spots are up for grabs. That means Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater, Jeremy Gallon, and a host of others will be battling it out for one or two spots on the roster.
Aaron Dobson: At 6-foot-3, Dobson is the tallest receiver on the Patriots' roster. The Patriots' second-round draft choice of a year ago, Dobson had an up-and-down rookie season but showed flashes of becoming a big-play receiver. He has the long speed to threaten defenses vertically, but his season was shortened by injury (foot), and his offseason has been impacted by the subsequent surgery.
Danny Amendola: The Patriots signed Amendola to serve as a replacement to Wes Welker. The two have a similar skill set, with Amendola showing similar elite quickness in and out of his breaks, but a slight upgrade in overall athleticism and long speed. He didn't have much of an opportunity to flash those skills last year, missing time due to injuries (groin, concussion) and was rendered less effective after tearing his groin in Week 1. This season could be a make-or-break year for Amendola.
Julian Edelman: Not only was 2013 the first fully-healthy season of Edelman's career, it was also a season in which the Patriots' skill position talent was depleted by injuries and ineffectiveness. Those two factors combined for Edelman to put up career numbers in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,056) and receiving touchdowns (6). He has a similar skill set to Amendola and Welker, with quickness to get away from coverage and the toughness to make catches in traffic over the middle. He is typically sure-handed, but had 13 drops in 2013, third-most in the league.
Kenbrell Thompkins: Last year's big training camp revelation, Thompkins took time to catch on in the Patriots' offense, but flashed the ability to get open one-on-one, running crisp routes with sound technique to help him get open. An injury (hip) slowed him down and kept him out of several games at the end of the season. He was also held out of the Patriots' 23-16 loss in the AFC Championship Game.
Brandon LaFell: LaFell was primarily a slot receiver in his four years with the Carolina Panthers, but the 6-foot-2, 210-pound receiver could find himself lined up on the boundary now that he has signed with the Patriots. He has the frame to get away from tight coverage, and the quickness to run crisp routes. The question is whether he can make the all-important transition from a "numbers system" in Carolina to a system where the routes are called by their names in New England.
Josh Boyce: The Patriots used a fourth-round pick on the ultra-athletic Boyce in 2013, but did not get as much of a return on investment as they may have liked after he was sidelined for the season by an injury (ankle). The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Boyce ran a 6.68-second three-cone drill and a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the 2013 scouting combine, and has the skill set to be a solid slot receiver and returner.
Matthew Slater: For years, Slater has earned his roster spot based on his abilities as a gunner. It certainly hasn't been his receiving talent, as the speedster has caught just one career pass. His ability to get downfield and pin opponents deep in their own territory on special teams has earned him national notoriety as a Pro Bowl selection in 2011, which makes it hard to imagine his spot being taken away.
Jeremy Gallon: A seventh-round draft choice in May's draft, Gallon's best chance to make the roster seems to be his special teams ability. He was spotted returning kicks during Patriots organized team activities and mini-camp in addition to his duties lining up as a receiver. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound rookie was not short on production at Michigan, putting up 89 receptions for 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns in his senior season.
Others: Wilson Van Hooser, Reese Wiggins, Jeremy Johnson
1. Julian Edelman
2. Danny Amendola
3. Brandon LaFell
4. Aaron Dobson
5. Kenbrell Thompkins
6. Matthew Slater
7. Josh Boyce *
8. Jeremy Gallon *
9. Jeremy Johnson *
10. Wilson Van Hooser *
11. Reese Wiggins *
* = projected cut
The top four on the depth chart are ordered by their contributions in 2013. For now, Thompkins gets the nod as the No. 5 receiver because of his work at minicamp and OTAs; his experience in 2013 gives him a leg-up on Boyce and the rest of the competition. Boyce's special teams potential may make him a front-runner down the line, and the same applies to Gallon. The others are a long-shot to make the roster.