Ten thoughts related to the Patriots’ corps of receivers — a position at which the team made 31 roster transactions involving 17 players between the start of free agency in mid-March and moving Josh Gordon to injured reserve late Wednesday afternoon…
1. The timing and circumstances of the decision on Gordon suggest there are non-football reasons at play, particularly when considering the disconnect between reports his knee was recovering nicely and the team shutting him down later that same day. But, purely from a football perspective, the Pats aren’t all that much worse without him, and they won’t really miss him unless injuries, multiple, deplete their depth to the point they’re simply searching for a body who can play in their system. When he arrived in New England at age 27 he was already a long way from the tantalizing freak whose talents made him an All-Pro at 22, and while Patriots fans kept clutching to the expectation that “Flash” would reemerge, the reality of 2019 is that Gordon didn’t look like much more than an average player with good size but a lack of speed or explosiveness. He caught a long ball against Pittsburgh, used that size to shrug off a tackle en route to the end zone, and made a pair of nice catches when Tom Brady started force feeding him in the second half of a blowout against the Jets. Other than those four plays, which all came in the first three weeks, Gordon’s 32 targets this season netted 16 completions for 173 yards and no touchdowns. During his time in Foxborough he caught four of 12 targets in the red zone, and fewer than half the passes sent his way on third down. Yes, he’s a decent player — but don’t be fooled by the big name and the monster season he produced six long years ago. Cutting ties with the 2019 version of Josh Gordon isn’t anything close to a season-killer.
2. Given that the team just dealt a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu, and that Julian Edelman is entrenched as the alpha, even if Gordon had been allowed to return from injury he would likely have been No. 3 on New England’s receiver depth chart. Since 2013, the Patriots’ third-most productive receiver has finished with between 32-37 catches and 400-550 yards in all but one year. (That year it was even less, because Rob Gronkowski joined Edelman and Brandon LaFell in combining for 248 catches and more than 3,000 yards.) In that role, the most important thing is having someone who is efficient enough that he can find a way to be productive and effective even with limited targets. That’s far more apt a description of Phillip Dorsett than it is Gordon.
3. To that point, Gordon caught 57.7 percent of his targets over 17 games with the Patriots. Since 2010, that’s the 10th-lowest of any New England pass catcher who’s been thrown to at least 25 times, and every player with a completion rate of less than 60 percent over that span has lasted less than 30 games in the system. By comparison, 17 of the 23 qualifying pass catchers who topped 60 percent lasted for at least parts of three seasons.
4. At 71.3 percent, Dorsett has the second-highest catch percentage of any New England wideout with at least 25 targets this decade, edged slightly by what Cordarelle Patterson did during his single-season cameo. Dorsett caught 26 straight passes from Brady at one stage — and if the Pats think he can fill Gordon’s cleats, history is on their side. Since the start of last season, New England has played 10 games (including the playoffs) in which Gordon participated in fewer than 25 percent of the offensive snaps. In those contests, Dorsett has caught 29 of 43 passes (67.4 percent) for 312 yards and six touchdowns.
5. It remains to be seen how Sanu will fit into the Patriots’ system, but eight seasons split between Cincinnati and Atlanta suggest he’ll bring to the passing game that level of reliability that might’ve been lacking with Gordon. He’s caught 67 percent of the passes thrown to him in his career, and was posting a career-high 78.6 percent rate when shipped out of the ATL earlier this week. On top of that, this season he’s caught 10 of 11 balls on third down, and three of four red-zone targets, with 15 touchdowns on 36 targets from inside the 10-yard line over the course of his career. That profile fits perfectly with what this Patriots offense needs.
6. Paying the price of a second-round pick for Sanu makes more sense if the Gordon situation was bubbling underneath the surface, and the Pats risked losing more leverage in negotiations if they weren’t aggressive. That fellow receiver Emmanuel Sanders was sent to the 49ers soon after must be factored in, too, as it reflects the demand for veteran receivers on the market as the trade deadline looms. Is a second-rounder still an overpay? Probably. But if Sanu is a difference maker in helping the Pats win even one — one! — game, that’ll be one more victory than their second-round picks have helped them procure since taking Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014. Granted, even he was only responsible for a win and a half, but that’s more than Jordan Richards (2015), Cyrus Jones (2016), Duke Dawson (2018), or JoeJuan Williams (jury’s out, 2019) can claim.
7. If Sanu is the player he projects to be — and as good a fit as the Patriots have to be expecting after pursuing this trade for upwards of six months — one of the prime beneficiaries should be Edelman. Particularly, Edelman’s well-being. As the pieces around him have come and gone, the 33-year-old has managed to play in every game this season, and in those games Brady has used him at a level that’s worth reevaluating in terms of its wisdom. Over the five games leading into Sunday, Edelman saw 10 targets against the Jets, and that was despite playing just a half. He returned a week later with ailing ribs and a chest injury, and still saw seven targets. The next week it was nine, then 15, then 12. If they’re going to get to February, New England needs Edelman to be available and healthy in January. Maintaining a 155-target pace isn’t a smart way to do that with an 11th-year pro who’s on the injury report yet again this week.
8. Pro Football Reference considers any player to appear in at least half his team’s games to be a qualifier for its leaderboards. And according to that criteria, the receiver with the highest catch percentage in the NFL is none other than Jakobi Meyers, at 86.7 percent. He’s sixth overall, but the five ahead of him are all running backs or tight ends, and Seattle’s Tyler Lockett is the only other wideout in the top 25, with Tennessee’s Adam Humphries (another object of Patriot affection) the third receiver topping 80 percent through Week 7. Meyers has caught all nine targets the past two tilts, and that doesn’t include the two occasions on which a Jets defender was forced to commit an egregious penalty because he was about to get burnt badly. Brady is beginning to look his way, and in important spots. As Belichick suggested, it’ll get tougher as he becomes less of an afterthought for coverages, but Meyers is emerging as a legitimate factor.
9. Two other roster spots that are technically used on receivers belong to Matt Slater and Gunner Olszewski — and it says here that both of them are roster spots well-utilized. Slater’s special teams contributions are unassailable, and Olszewski has somewhat quietly slid into eighth league-wide in yards per punt return. When the defense forces as many punts as it does, and the offense has stalled for extended stretches, there’s value in having a guy back there who can jump start a drive before it starts. (Also: Refer back to thought No. 7, about protecting Edelman.)
10. As the world turns in the Patriots’ receiving corps soap opera the pressure on the first-round pick seems to swing like a pendulum, but there’s a real opportunity emerging for N’Keal Harry. He’s lost months to what wasn’t considered a major injury, but it’s worth remembering that before busting a hamstring in Week 1 of the preseason, reports out of Michigan were that Harry was one of the more impressive competitors in joint practices against the Lions. Rejoining practice in the stretch where the Pats will play three games in 37 days could be a significant asset as he reenters the mix — assuming Brady can spare the mental energy it may take to help him come along.