What now? With Julian Edelman retired, where do the Patriots go when they need a catch on third down? Who is their North Star in the locker room when it comes to determining what they want to be from a toughness standpoint? From a competitiveness standpoint?
There's no doubt the Patriots will miss Edelman for a variety of reasons. And even though he was headed into his 35-year-old season, even on bad legs and with bum shoulders, what they'll miss in terms of his on-the-field production is significant. Still. There's simply no obvious go-to receiver in this offense as currently constructed.
WHAT ABOUT THE TIGHT ENDS?
Yes, part of Edelman's over-the-middle efficiency will be taken up by what is about to be a tight-end-centric offense directed by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry have the ability to be chain-movers. They've been paid handsomely to take on those duties as part of their overall, multi-faceted gig.
But even their effectiveness can be limited depending on the situation.
Remember, the benefit of trotting out two-tight-end sets is largely founded in their unpredictability. When the down-and-distance scenarios are right, Smith and Henry can be used to attack based on how opposing defenses respond to their usage.
Go big against them to defend the run? Those tight ends are capable enough as receivers to exploit linebackers in coverage. Go small against them to prevent chunk gains through the air? Those tight ends are capable enough as blockers to plow through defensive backs in the running game.
But when the situation is more predictable -- when it's third and seven and the entire stadium knows the Patriots have to throw the football -- then Smith and Henry's value as dual-threat weapons becomes somewhat minimized. When there is no threat of the run for an opposing defense, tight ends become bigger-bodied-but-less-dynamic wide receivers.
So Smith and Henry alone can't make up for what the Patriots lose in Edelman and his proficiency on money downs and in critical late-game situations. They'll help. But it can't all be on them.
That forces us to take a closer look at the wide receiver position.
FOLLOW THE MONEY TO... NELSON AGHOLOR?
The best one-for-one fill-in for Edelman would be the man who has never taken a snap as a member of the Patriots but will still pull in more cash in 2021 ($12 million) than Edelman ever did in a single year (high of $11 million in 2019), according to Over the Cap.
Nelson Agholor was brought in this offseason as the big-ticket free-agent signing at wideout, one season after producing as a dangerous down-the-field threat for the Raiders (18.7 yards per catch). How does that make sense? What makes a deep threat like Agholor the best fit to take on that which Edelman brought this team, you might ask?
Well, Agholor is being paid as the team's top receiving target. Edelman, at his height, saw 150 targets or thereabouts over the course of a 16-game season when healthy. Will Agholor ever approach those numbers? Maybe not. But based on his salary, he should see more than anyone else, and he should see more than his fair share when his team is in a gotta-have-it moment on third down or late in games.
Additionally, projecting Agholor's role in the Patriots offense goes beyond what he's pulling down in terms of salary. He and Edelman share a common trait: alignment versatility.
Agholor has been more than a down-the-field player over the course of his career, just as Edelman has been more than a slot receiver, which Josh McDaniels went to great lengths to explain last season.
"Julian’s really a different player," McDaniels said. "That’s the thing that I’ve always thought, in being so close to this offense, understanding the intricacies of it, and where we put people and how the players play in it. He’s not just a slot receiver, and never has been. And so he’s been able to produce on the perimeter, he’s been able to produce inside, we’ve played him outside and brought him across the formation, he does so many different things . . .
"His role has grown and evolved over time. But to say he would be just a slot receiver, it would be an error in understanding how he’s been used. But, he’s able to function in there, just like those other guys, and he’s obviously been super productive for us when he’s been in there. But I see his role as being bigger in terms of the whole picture, than those other players I’ve been fortunate to work with in there.”
Edelman is a versatile player who may skew more toward slot receiver. Agholor is a versatile player who, after last season especially, may skew more toward perimeter receiver. But both can do both.
According to Pro Football Focus, 30 percent of Agholor's snaps in 2020 came in the slot. In 2019, as a member of the Eagles, Agholor spent the majority of his time inside (67 percent). In 2018, his time was more evenly split between playing in the slot (55 percent) and on the outside. He caught a career-high 64 passes for 736 yards and four touchdowns that season.
Agholor also has an interesting height-weight-speed profile that would allow him to play multiple roles in the Patriots offense. At 6-feet, 198 pounds, he has enough size to line up outside, and his 4.42-second 40-yard dash in 2015 would indicate he's fast enough to fit the Patriots' thresholds on the boundary. While his 4.34-second shuttle was unremarkable and not necessarily up to "Prototypical Patriots" slot standards (closer to a 4.1-second shuttle), he did run an impressive 6.83-second three-cone drill at his pro day, indicating he has some strong change-of-direction skills.
The Patriots have plenty of other receiving options who could take on a sizable workload in the first year of the post-Edelman era.
Jakobi Meyers worked primarily from the slot last season and caught 59 passes for 729 yards. He developed a certain measure of trust from quarterback Cam Newton over the course of the year that could lead to him becoming a go-to option in the same way that Edelman was for Tom Brady.
Kendrick Bourne is an intriguing option as a free-agent signee this offseason. He's another player with good change-of-direction ability (6.73-second three-cone drill in 2017) who has shown he can play both inside (41 percent in 2020) and out. Like Meyers (6-2, 200), Bourne (6-1, 203) might be described as "high-cut" and a more angular inside-out receiver option than Edelman was.
Gunner Olszewski is a strong athlete himself (6.88-second three-cone), but he's played just 187 offensive snaps over the course of his first two professional seasons and appears to be more of a special-teams-only player (first-team All-Pro punt returner in 2020) at the moment. While the same was true of Edelman at a certain point in his career, Olszewski (listed at 6-feet, 190) is a more slightly-built player.
If Agholor was brought to Foxboro to be a deep threat, and if neither Meyers nor Bourne are built to run those hard-breaking routes that were executed so artfully by Edelman -- and Wes Welker and Troy Brown before him -- then where could the Patriots turn for their next intermediate-level dynamo?
ANSWER IN THE DRAFT?
Luckily for the Patriots, this draft class is loaded with receiver talent. And among that group of receivers are a bunch who look like they could thrive in the slot. Not just based on their ability to stop and start at an otherworldly rate, but because they have straight-line speed to boot.
Jaylen Waddle of Alabama is the Prototypical Patriots headliner when it comes to this crew. At 5-10, 182 pounds, he's not as solidly-built as Edelman, but there's an argument to be made that he's the most versatile and dynamic receiver in this year's class. He hasn't been able to test during the pre-draft process as he recovers from an injury suffered in his final collegiate season, but scouts believe he has 4.3-second 40-yard dash speed and his acceleration is eye-opening.
There are others in this class who feel like strong Patriots fits based on their next-level athleticism and explosive slot ability, but many of them are a tad undersized for a Patriots team that under Belichick has never drafted a slot receiver who weighs less than 184 pounds. Purdue's Rondale Moore (5-7. 180), Ole Miss' Elijah Moore (5-9, 178) and North Texas' Jaelon Darden (5-8, 174) all have the movement skills to thrive inside despite their relative lack of bulk.
The slightly bigger slots who look like fits for Belichick's roster? There's Florida's Kadarius Toney (5-11, 189), who lit up the SEC as one of the drivers of his team's explosive passing attack. There's South Carolina's Shi Smith (5-9, 186), who like Toney had a very strong week at the Senior Bowl.
Then there's Western Michigan's D'Wayne Eskridge, who told us on a recent episode of Next Pats that he's met virtually with Patriots special teams coach Cam Achord on multiple occasions. His resume reads like that of a perfect Patriots draft pick as he's served as an explosive playmaker offensively and as a returner, he's played defensive back, and he's covered kicks. Add him to the list of options here who starred in Mobile, Ala. at the Senior Bowl.
Also keep an eye out for Connor Wedington (6-0, 196) of Stanford. While the names listed previously could all be gone by the end of the fourth round, Wedington should last well into Day 3, as Edelman did in 2009, despite posting some elite agility times at his pro day (4.07-second shuttle, 6.66-second three-cone).
There are perimeter options who'd suit the Patriots in this year's draft, too. Consider Michigan's Nico Collins, who played for a staff that included Ben McDaniels, Josh's brother, at Ann Arbor. He checks just about every box athletically that the Patriots often look for. And, after opting out of 2020, he's another who performed well at this year's Senior Bowl. Taking Collins might allow for Agholor to operate more from the slot, if that's where the Patriots see their new high-priced receiver thriving.
You can read all about the names listed above in more detail in this year's receiver installment of our Prototypical Patriots series.
The Patriots will be hard-pressed to find a receiver who deserves to be next in the Brown-Welker-Edelman line. Maybe it's Agholor, who's versatile and being paid like a go-to guy but still an unknown in the McDaniels system. Maybe it's a draft pick.
Or maybe the offense will evolve to the point where the role Edelman shouldered for the better part of the last decade will be minimized because whichever quarterback is behind center -- Newton, a rookie or someone else -- simply will not be the accurate assassin Brady was.
But no matter how the scheme changes, there will always be third downs to convert. There will always be late-game situations that require high-end performance. And for those, the Patriots desperately need someone to step up in Edelman's absence.