FOXBORO - In the grand scheme of things, Eric Decker's retirement doesn't make much of an impact on the Patriots. He had done little to show that he deserved a roster spot, and the money he was guaranteed ($75,000) served as an indicator that his job was far from assured.
The receiver spot was thin before Decker's Instagram announcement, and it still is.
The question is, as we get closer to cut-down day Saturday, just how thin can that position be as the Patriots go into the first four weeks of the season without Julian Edelman? In our most recent 53-man projection, only three true receivers made the list. (Four total, including special-teams ace Matthew Slater, who rarely sees time offensively.)
Is it feasible for Bill Belichick to carry only three at that position to start the year? It is. It's not ideal. But it is.
In more than a third of Patriots games last season (six) they only played three receivers. Most of those games were when Danny Amendola or Chris Hogan weren't available due to injury. Edelman was out the entire season with a torn ACL.
- MORE PATRIOTS - Dorsett has encouraging night, but questions remain at WR
They did just fine with three receivers. By the end of the season, the Patriots most popular positional grouping was still their three-receiver 11-personnel group (44 percent of their snaps), but they used it much less frequently than the league as a whole. NFL teams on average went with their 11-personnel 59 percent of the time, according to Sharp Football Stats.
Clearly, the Patriots liked their heavier personnel groups. Only one team (the Bears, 45 percent of snaps) went 12 or 21-personnel more than the Patriots did (41 percent). (San Francisco also used 12 or 21-personnel 41 percent of the time.) The league used those 12 and 21-personnel packages, on average, 26 percent of the time.
The Patriots could certainly shoot for the same marks in 2018, especially with Edelman out, but there are some issues with that approach this year.
First, as it pertains to their 11-personnel grouping, do they have three dependable receivers? In 2017, they had a solid top three of Brandin Cooks, Hogan and Amendola. Hogan and Phillip Dorsett look like legitimate options for Brady this year, but Cordarrelle Patterson - the odds-on favorite to be the No. 3 for four weeks - is a bit of an enigma. He's a return specialist and big-play threat who's averaged less than three touches per game offensively over the course of his career. If he's going to be included in New England's 11-personnel groupings through September, he may have to show he can be more consistent in the passing game. Tom Brady has targeted Patterson twice in each of the past two preseason games.
Furthermore, if the Patriots rolled with three receivers on their 53, there would be little in the way of insurance to maintain New England's 11-personnel groupings should an injury arise in those four weeks. In 2017, the Patriots had Dorsett as their No. 4 many weeks. Not bad. If Brandin Cooks, Hogan or Amendola was down, Dorsett could give them competitive snaps. If the Patriots opt to keep a fourth wideout in 2018 not named Slater, the lead candidate looks like Riley McCarron.
So if 11-personnel groupings could be dicey without Edelman, then go heavy...right?
The thing is, there's a potential dependability issue with those sets as well.
In 2017, in the weeks when the Patriots needed more from their regular (two-back) personnel, their depth in the backfield was particularly useful. Dion Lewis came on strong just before Hogan's midseason injury last year, giving the Patriots three talented pass-catching backs for a stretch when their receiving corps was thinned: Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead.
The Patriots looked deep at running back again this year when camp began, but injuries have taken their toll. Burkhead and Sony Michel have missed weeks with knee issues, and it remains to be seen how effective they'll be upon return. Second-year tight end Jacob Hollister, meanwhile, missed the game Friday with an injury, though his ailment doesn't seem as though it'll impact his long-term availability.
The Patriots still have White and Rob Gronkowski to help make their passing game go with Edelman suspended. But for a team with receiver depth issues, the Patriots would probably like to be a little more spry at other positions to help compensate. If they don't get healthier - particularly at running back - it could be tough to trot out those heavier personnel groupings they so enjoy.
As we've seen, the Patriots can get by with three receivers. But not without some help.