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: 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.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Training camp position battles to watch

Patriots Talk Podcast: Training camp position battles to watch

Finally, the New England Patriots are back on the field at Gillette Stadium.

The new-look Pats had their first practice of 2020 on Wednesday, which means training camp position battles are officially underway. The obvious position battle in camp will be at the quarterback position between Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham, but there are many more intriguing battles to keep an eye on.

In a brand new Patriots Talk Podcast, Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry break down the positions where these battles will take place.

Patriots Talk Podcast - Training Camp Preview: Burning Questions. Bold Predictions | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

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Perry named the Patriots' three most notable position battles, starting with the QB position. While it's technically a battle between Newton and Stidham, some believe it's a foregone conclusion Newton will be the Week 1 starter.

"You have the quarterback spot with Cam vs. Stidham. Let's move past that, we've talked enough about that, we both think Cam is going to win the job. Not a real battle, per se," Perry said.

"Let's go back to the outside linebackers. This is a four-way cage match between Chase Winovich, Anfernee Jennings, Shilique Calhoun, and Brandon Copeland. My guy is going to be Anfernee Jennings, but I do think that's a battle. Whatever that opposite John Simon edge spot is called, somebody's got to fill it.

"Number three, let's talk special teams ... who is your returner? Is it Kyle Dugger, your first draft pick in this year's draft? Is it J.J. Taylor? Fun as hell to watch, would be fun as hell to watch in the kicking game. Or is it last year's guy, Gunner [Olszewski]? They don't want to give it to Julian Edelman, we know that, so one of those three guys I think will win it."

For Curran, it's a newly-added safety who will have his attention in camp.

"I'm going to head over to the secondary for the position battle that I'm interested to watch," Curran said. "I have a good feeling of who's going to shine there and it's my defensive dark horse for this camp and this season -- it's going to be Adrian Phillips at the safety spot holding off a young Kyle Dugger.

"I think Adrian Phillips is going to be an absolute eye-opener at the safety position ... Adrian Phillips is a talented player, he's closer to [Patrick] Chung than he is Devin McCourty. He's going to be a really good player for the Patriots this year. But I'm going to be real interested to see how Dugger competes ... he's an athletic unicorn."

Curran and Perry also discuss the burning questions surrounding the Patriots, why the Pats should explore using the triple option, bold predictions for the 2020 season, and much more.

Check out the latest episode of the Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or on YouTube.

Patriots' 2020 draft pick Dustin Woodard retires before rookie season

Patriots' 2020 draft pick Dustin Woodard retires before rookie season

One of the New England Patriots' 2020 draft picks has decided to retire before his rookie season began.

The team announced Thursday it has placed offensive lineman Dustin Woodard on the reserve/retired list.

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Woodard, who played college football at the University of Memphis, was selected by the Patriots in the seventh round (230th overall) of April's draft. The 22-year-old center/guard was one of three offensive linemen taken by the Patriots in the 2020 draft, along with guard Michael Onwenu (sixth round) and tackle Justin Herron (sixth round).

Why is Woodard retiring? ESPN's Mike Reiss reported additional details:

The Patriots signed center Tyler Gauthier on Wednesday in a move that adds some depth to the position following Woodard's retirement. Woodard had a chance to make the roster as the backup center behind starter David Andrews.