Patriots

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address wide receivers?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address wide receivers?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

Like the running back position in New England, the Patriots could roll into 2020 with just about the same group if they so choose.

Julian Edelman is back. Same goes for Mohamed Sanu, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski. Phillip Dorsett is the lone regular contributor from the 2019 receiver room who's set to hit free agency. Matthew Slater, almost exclusively a special-teamer, is scheduled to be a free agent as well. Though Meyers showed promise in spurts throughout his rookie season, only Edelman, Sanu and Harry look like guarantees to be on the roster. 

Will the Patriots be OK with that trio as their top three?

Does Meyers make sense as the No. 4? Or does there need to be a significant upgrade talent-wise made to this unit via free agency, shuffling the depth chart and giving whoever's playing quarterback -- Tom Brady or someone else -- better weapons to work with? What was available at times last season was ugly.

BREAKING DOWN THE CURRENT ROSTER

Julian Edelman: Headed into his 34-year-old season, it's worth wondering exactly how much the Patriots will be able to depend on Edelman. He did -- despite injuries to his ribs, shoulder and knee -- put up one of the most productive seasons of his career, cracking 1,000 yards.

Mohamed Sanu: After a promising start to his Patriots career, including a 10-catch performance against the Ravens midseason, Sanu tailed off. He suffered a high-ankle sprain and had just 14 catches on 26 targets following that game in Baltimore. The Patriots dealt a second-round pick to get him so he's probably not going anywhere ahead of the 2020 season. They'll just have to hope more time in the system, and better health, yields better outcomes. 

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N'Keal Harry: The rookie first-round pick lost the first half of his season to injured reserve and had trouble finding his footing upon his return. He finished the year with 12 catches for 105 yards on 24 targets in seven games. He flashed contested-catch promise with a touchdown against the Cowboys and a leaping grab in Cincinnati that was called back due to penalty -- he was also an effective runner on end-around plays -- but the Patriots will be looking for much more consistency in Year 2. 

Phillip Dorsett: The Patriots signed Dorsett to a one-year deal last offseason, in all likelihood hoping he could reprise his 2018 role as a valuable reserve. Pressed into more regular action, he wasn't as efficient a target for Brady and by the end of the season he was ceding reps to rookies. He could return via free agency this offseason if the Patriots want a familiar face to come back and be able to fill in. But it feels as though both sides might be willing to find a fresh start. 

Jakobi Meyers: After a strong summer, Meyers didn't exactly hit the ground running, but he did end up as the team's most productive rookie wideout. He averaged 13.8 yards per catch -- 0.1 behind what Emmaunel Sanders did in San Fran and what Brandin Cooks did in Los Angeles -- and no rookie caught more contested targets (seven of 10), according to Pro Football Focus.

Gunner Olszewski: The Bemidji State product was the last to make the active roster out of camp but stuck around long enough to play in eight games before landing on injured reserve. He caught just two passes for 34 yards -- both against the Giants in Week 6 when the Patriots were hurting at the receiver spot -- but chipped in as the team's regular punt-returner before his injury. He returned 20 for 179 yards (9.0 yards per return, 20th in the NFL). 

Matthew Slater: Slater heads into free agency after another First Team All-Pro selection as a special-teamer, his fifth. He played 20 snaps in 2019 -- all as a run-blocker.

WHO IS POTENTIALLY ON THE OPEN MARKET?

Amari Cooper: This would be a Ruthian hack in free agency. Cooper might cost almost $20 million per year on whatever new deal he signs. The Patriots, though, have been bold in adding talent to their roster when they see glaring issues. Would they be this bold?

Seems unlikely that the Patriots would devote the necessary resources to land this one-time Nick Saban pupil, but it'd infuse the wideout room in New England with some much-needed, in-his-prime talent. If Tom Brady is willing to take pennies on the dollar to stick in New England with the promise that he'll have more to work with in 2020, Cooper should be the team's top-of-the-list item.

A.J. Green: The Patriots are in need of a vertical presence in the passing game. For years that was Rob Gronkowski. Hard to replicate that skill set at tight end, so it may have to be a receiver. After a year off, it's hard to know exactly how Green would fill this role . . . but it's what he's done for the majority of his career.

He'd be a much cheaper option than Cooper ($9 million per year might get it done), and he might be itching to play for a competitor. Green would make more sense than going after Emmanuel Sanders, another 30-something free agent this offseason, since the Patriots are already loaded up on interior veteran pass-catchers in Sanu and Edelman. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: FAMILIAR FACE

Danny Amendola: The Patriots might be set in the slot. But wouldn't it make sense to have a trusted option on the inside should Julian Edelman be forced to miss time due to injury? Amendola filled that role admirably in 2014 and 2016 when Edelman was healthy for the majority of the year. It allowed Amendola to sit back for portions of the year and then be used more liberally in the postseason.

He knows the offense. He wouldn't be looking to break the bank at this point in his career. He still holds respect for the organization, and anything he said upon his departure from New England in 2018 would be water under the bridge if Bill Belichick felt as though his receiver group would be better off with Amendola in it. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: UNDER-THE-RADAR OPTIONS

Breshad Perriman: It wasn't all that long ago that Perriman looked like the perfect Patriots reclamation project. They've had a long list of failed first-round draft picks come through their recevier room -- Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson -- and Perriman could've been the latest.

The only problem? He tore it up at the end of the 2019 season for the Bucs, finishing with career-highs in catches (36), yards (645) and touchdowns (6) while playing for his third team in his four-year career. He'd be a clever solution to New England's vertical issues, but he might've priced himself out of Patriots consideration with what he did at the end of the year.

Travis Benjamin: A much different type of vertical threat than Perriman (who stands 6-foot-2, 215 pounds), Benjamin is a mini-burner at 5-10, 175 pounds. He was placed on injured reserve in October of last season so his numbers were down across the board, but he's averaged over 15.0 yards per catch for his career and he has a wealth of return experience. He might be a cost-effective gamble at the position this offseason. 

Pharoh Cooper: The Rams took Cooper in the fourth round in 2016, and he went on to win First-Team All-Pro honors the following year for his work in the return game. For his career, he's returned 66 punts for 619 yards and 92 kicks for 2,213 yards.

The 5-foot-11, 200 pounder also finished with the eighth-best catch rate from the slot in 2019, according to PFF. He had 25 catches for 243 yards and a touchdown on the season. If the Patriots wanted some young depth in the slot, Cooper might be a good option. Sanu is in the final year of his deal and Edelman's contract runs out after 2021.

Report: Ex-Patriots WR Danny Amendola to re-sign with Lions

Report: Ex-Patriots WR Danny Amendola to re-sign with Lions

Scratch that Danny Amendola-Patriots reunion.

Peter Schrager of the NFL Network reports the free-agent wide receiver is re-signing with the Detroit Lions, where he spent last season and had 62 catches for 678 yards. Former Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will enter his third season as Lions coach in 2020. 

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The 34-year-old left the Patriots after five seasons to sign with the Miami Dolphins in 2018 and may have burned a bridge or two with Bill Belichick. 

It had been speculated that perhaps bringing in a former reliable Tom Brady receiver might be part of a plan to lure Brady back to New England, with a report in late January that Amendola could come along to wherever Brady lands in free agency, but a Brady-Amendola reunion in Detroit isn't happening, either. 

Next Pats Podcast: Will Patriots go mobile at QB if Tom Brady leaves?

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Next Pats Podcast: Will Patriots go mobile at QB if Tom Brady leaves?

There's one big question that New England Patriots are facing this offseason. Who is going to be their starting quarterback in 2020?

For the past 20 seasons, the team hasn't really had questions at the position. It has always been Tom Brady's job. But with the 42-year-old set to hit free agency, the Patriots can't necessarily count on him returning unless they want to pay him what he's worth.

So, now the question for the Patriots becomes, what will life look like if Brady departs?

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On the latest episode of The Next Pats Podcast, which returns for its first episode of the 2020 offseason, Phil Perry is here to explore that question. And really what it all boils down to is what the Patriots are looking for in a potential successor.

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As Perry notes, it's likely to be one of two types of quarterback: The traditional pocket passer or a more mobile athlete in the mold of some of the recent success stories at the position.

Do the Patriots look for the next Brady? Uber-accurate, somebody who's going to sit in the pocket and absolutely dissect every little aspect of the defense that he is looking at. Or, do they go a different route? Do they go with an athlete? Do they get more mobile? Because talking to people this offseason, I'm getting a whiff -- I'm getting a scent that people believe the pocket passer might be dead.

Perry is joined by guests including Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo, Greg Cosell of ESPN and NFL Films, and NFL Network's Kurt Warner to answer questions about Brady's future and what his game has looked like in recent seasons.

For more thoughts about the Patriots offseason, check out the latest episode of the Next Pats Podcast, available as part of the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network.