Three thoughts on the Patriots as they ready for their third preseason game, or the one that usually features the varsity . . .
■ In his nearly two decades as the Patriots’ starting quarterback — even those ol’ Drew Bledsoe fanatics must admit his tenure has gone pretty well — Tom Brady has thrown to a wide array of pass-catching talent, players with different skill sets, abilities, and competency levels.
But it’s very easy to pinpoint the period when he had the most pure receiving talent on the roster: September 2010.
For the first four weeks of the 2010 season, the depth chart included Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Brandon Tate. The tight ends were rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and veteran Alge Crumpler.
These players were at different stages of their career, obviously. Edelman had 7 catches that year, or 17 fewer than Tate, his fellow 2009 draftee who didn’t work out here but who lasted in the league through last season.
Gronk and Hernandez were second- and fourth-round picks, supreme talents who entered the league with significant questions. Gronk had endured major back surgery at Arizona, while Hernandez’s troubles with the law were more sinister than we knew then.
Welker was still the slot machine, of course, and while Moss had started to decline, he is the most electrifying receiver in NFL history and probably second only to Jerry Rice in terms of overall contributions.
It didn’t last long. Moss, restless in what looked like a lesser role with his contract expiring at season’s end, spoke about his frustrations in a long press conference after the season-opening win against the Bengals. After he was held without a catch in a win over the Dolphins in Week 4, the Patriots traded him to Minnesota, where he’d made his NFL name.
But for four weeks, the Patriots had the best tight end in NFL history, the second-best receiver in league lore, and two of the best slot receivers of all-time on the same roster.
I bring all of this up because . . . well, because it’s fun to remember, at least the Gronk-and-Moss-as-teammates dynamic.
But it’s also because I’m starting to think the group of receivers Brady has now is the most eclectic and interesting since 2010.
I’m not suggesting the group has that level of star power, because it doesn’t. But what it has is a diverse and undeniably talented assortment of players at various stages of their careers.
There’s Edelman, who at 33 is coming off a Super Bowl MVP performance and remains the most reliable target Brady has ever had, someone who is building a Hall of Fame case of his own now.
There’s first-round pick N’Keal Harry, an Anquan Boldin-style brute for the position and the first No. 1 pick used on a receiver in Bill Belichick’s 20 seasons in New England.
There’s Jakobi Meyers, who has risen (with 12 catches in two preseason games) from a who-is-this-guy? roster-filler to someone who looks sure to make the team, the find of the summer.
There’s Phillip Dorsett, who gets little notice and is no lock to stick, yet was dependable enough last year to catch 32 of the 42 balls Brady threw his way.
And there’s Josh Gordon, the supremely talented, sadly troubled receiver whose story seems to have brought out some long-dormant empathy in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and is getting one more chance at a last chance.
The tight end situation — with Matt LaCosse, Lancrose Kendricks, and Ben Watson fighting for priority on the depth chart — isn’t especially compelling, particularly in comparison to 2010. But I’ll keep waiting for a Gronkowski return or late-season cameo as long as you will.
And if he ever did come back, I’ll say it then: This would be the most interesting group of pass-catchers Brady has ever had — including even the exceptional crew from September 2010.
Much respect to the writers who have to crank out those 53-man roster projections, knowing full well there will be one or two surprises that no one but Belichick and his brain trust saw coming. It is fun to look at what the final roster might look like, though, and studying colleague Ben Volin’s position-by-position breakdown, there are couple of conclusions that are easily arrived upon.
The main one? The Patriots don’t have the most star-studded roster of this era, but their quality depth at several positions — including just about every spot on defense — is more than enviable. It’s practically unheard of in the modern NFL.
Even the spots that are seemingly in flux, such as left tackle, have appealing answers. Isaiah Wynn is drawing raves, and remember, this spot was a concern a year ago too, right up until Trent Brown played so well that the Raiders made him the highest-paid lineman in the league. Dante Scarnecchia deserves a commission on top of his salary for what he does for these guys.
This is a very well-rounded roster, one that will take some pressure of the 42-year-old quarterback to be a dynamo every single down. I do think this is a reason why the Patriots should keep Brian Hoyer.
Jarrett Stidham’s talent is obvious, but he holds the ball too long and makes the mistakes you’d expect from a young quarterback swimming the playbook. If Brady misses a couple of weeks for some reason, the workmanlike Hoyer, with this roster behind him, would be capable of winning two out of every three games, not that anyone wants confirmation of this.
■ Sorry to see Ryan Allen go. In his six seasons with the Patriots, he was so dependable that he’s in the argument as the best punter in franchise history. I still vote for Rich Camarillo, but Allen is the team’s all-time leader in yards per punt (45.3).
No punter will ever win the Super Bowl MVP, but Allen made a legitimate case in February against the Rams, dropping three of his five punts inside the 20-yard line.
It was a solid gesture by Belichick to let Allen go now, when he can catch on with another team, and probably even have his pick of destinations. And this must mean newcomer Josh Bailey is a good one. Remember, the surprise when Allen beat out the popular Zoltan Mesko in 2013 was similar to this. And that worked out just fine.