Patriots

Patriots Roster Reset: N'Keal Harry's improvement in Year 2 key to WR group

Patriots Roster Reset: N'Keal Harry's improvement in Year 2 key to WR group

The Patriots were desperate for receiver help in 2019.

They held onto Josh Gordon. They selected a wideout in the first round for the first time in Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach. They signed Antonio Brown. They traded a second-round pick mid-season to add a veteran with a year and a half left on his deal.

Very little stuck.

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With a loaded receiver class in this year's draft, it was a given they'd invest at the position again . . . right? They added four undrafted wideouts, but none went to New England on draft weekend.

Instead, it's clear the Patriots will rely on seeing improvement from that 2019 first-rounder, N'Keal Harry, and from the vet who cost a second-rounder, Mohamed Sanu.

"I'm sure all our young players will improve in year two," Belichick said after the draft. "Got a first-round pick on N'Keal last year, second-round pick on Sanu. That was really off this draft. Obviously have Julian [Edelman] and a number of other young players. I think that will be a very good group.

"There's a lot of different ways and times to build your team. The draft is one of them. As I mentioned, whether it's Sanu or free agents signing like [Damiere] Byrd, whatever the case might be, there's multiple ways to build your roster, and this is one of them."

Here's how the Patriots depth chart at receiver is looking as things stand right now.

LOCK ‘EM IN

This group could end up being six or seven players deep, and yet the number of true locks currently on the roster? Two: Julian Edelman and N'Keal Harry.

Mohamed Sanu was mentioned by Bill Belichick earlier this offseason as being the team's second-round pick this year since that's what they traded away to land him. But the reality is he's a wideout in his 30s, coming off offseason ankle surgery, making $6.5 million on the salary cap. It'd be a second-round pick wasted if the Patriots ended up releasing Sanu — maybe they could pick up some value for him if they found a trade partner — but they were desperate for receiving help when they acquired him last season. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

That pick is now a sunk cost. If there's a younger player on the roster the Patriots feel could provide what Sanu does at a lower price, then it would not come as an overwhelming surprise if the Patriots moved on.

Matthew Slater, if you want to include him in this group, is a lock as a special-teams captain. The 34-year-old is coming off one of his best seasons and will provide the same steady leadership he has for a decade as the team navigates a season without Tom Brady.

ON THE BUBBLE

Let's start with the players from last year's roster who will look to reclaim roles after the Patriots re-tooled the back end of the depth chart this offseason.

Jakobi Meyers showed real chemistry with Jarrett Stidham when the two then-rookies embarked on their first pro preseason together. That could help him carve out a role as a depth piece, but his place on the 53-man roster can't be considered a sure thing.

Same goes for Gunner Olszewski. He made the club as a reserve wideout and the No. 1 punt returner before landing on IR last season.The team added a variety of punt-return options offseason — including second-round pick Kyle Dugger — which adds to the challenge Olszewski faces in making the roster.

Damiere Byrd is a 5-foot-9, 180-pound speedster who could bring a dynamic vertical element to the Patriots passing game if given the opportunity. He received $600,000 guaranteed to sign, according to the Boston Globe, which is more than some of the names you'll see under our "Long Shots" section, but it doesn't exactly guarantee him a roster spot.

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LONG SHOTS

Have to include all four undrafted rookies on this list just by the nature of their arrival to the Patriots.

Isaiah Zuber from Mississippi State pulled in the most guaranteed money among Patriots undrafted wideouts this year with $100,000. Jeff Thomas of Miami might be the most talented of the group, but he went undrafted after running into issues with two separate coaching staffs in college. Sean Riley — who like Zuber and Thomas could end up competing for a punt-return role — is an undersized interior option at 5-foot-8, 178 pounds out of Syracuse.

Auburn's Will Hastings is the player from this group we like as the favorite to make the roster at the moment. He lit up his pro day (one of the few this year that wasn't canceled) with elite-level agility numbers. He also has a built-in rapport with Stidham after their time together as Tigers teammates. Marqise Lee has to be included here after dealing with injury and being robbed of almost two full seasons. He did not play in 2018 and in 2019 he had just three catches in six games played.

Devin Ross and Quincy Adeboyejo, both of whom spent time on the Patriots practice squad last year, should be considered long shots as well.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

Jeff Thomas has talent. He's an NFL-caliber athlete. Listed at 5-foot-10, 174 pounds, he was a four-star high school recruit coming out of East St. Louis, Illinois — the No. 2 recruit in the state behind only edge defender A.J. Epenesa — and had offers from Alabama and Ohio State. His speed is instantaneous at the line of scrimmage and when he has the ball in his hands, he's able to hit another gear and pull away from defenders nearby.

His maturity level, meanwhile, has been an issue for him. He was dismissed from the Miami program by Mark Richt, who said at the time, "We have high standards for excellence, for conduct and for the commitment to the team for all of the young men who wear our uniform, and we will not waver from those standards." When a new coaching staff took over in 2019, he was welcomed back to the program . . . then suspended in October for two games for violating team rules.

If he can get with the Patriots program and adhere to everything they ask him to do, he has a real shot to make the roster and provide the team with an electric play-maker. But given his history, that's a sizable "if."

X-FACTOR

Marqise Lee told reporters earlier this month that he'd been working with Mick Lombardi as he gets caught up on the Patriots offense, and it sounded as though Lombardi had been handed the receiver coach's gig. There's been no official announcement by the team in terms of Lombardi's title, but if he has the receivers coach job then that's three in three years in New England. (Joe Judge, now head coach of the Giants, replaced Chad O'Shea as Patriots wideouts coach in 2019.)

Someone like Julian Edelman shouldn't be too severely impacted by the transition. But in a room that includes so much youth — including some intriguing undrafted rookies and the team's 2019 first-round pick — it'll be interesting to see how those players develop. Lombardi, son of former Patriots assistant Mike Lombardi, was most recently the assistant quarterbacks coach in New England. That's a title Lombardi held previously with the Jets.

One of Cam Newton's ex-Panthers teammates says Patriots QB 'still has it'

One of Cam Newton's ex-Panthers teammates says Patriots QB 'still has it'

One of Cam Newton's former teammates on the Carolina Panthers thinks the veteran quarterback is still capable of great things as he enters a new chapter of his career with the New England Patriots.

Newton reportedly has agreed to sign a one-year contract with the Patriots worth up to $7.5 million. He was released by the Panthers in March after spending the first nine seasons of his career in Carolina.

"Man, I was happy for Cam," Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson recently told NFL Network's Colleen Wolfe. "I hated that it took so long for him to get signed. He's an MVP quarterback. Cam still has it. I'm happy for him. I'm glad the Patriots invested in him, and I can't wait to see Cam Newton come out there and play."

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Thompson and Newton were teammates for five seasons, including Thompson's rookie campaign in 2015 when Newton won league MVP and led the Panthers to Super Bowl 50.

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Thompson is not the only former or current player predicting success for Newton in New England. Ex-Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch thinks Newton will "erupt" and have a "crazy season" as a player motivated to prove his doubters wrong. Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss said the Patriots offense will be a lot of fun to watch with Newton at the helm.

There are reasons to believe Newton will thrive with the Patriots. Just two years ago he completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 3,395 yards and 24 touchdowns. He played at an MVP level for the first eight games of 2018 before a shoulder injury derailed his season.

Health is always going to be the main concern with Newton, especially after he missed 14 games in 2019 due to injuries. But if healthy, the Patriots should be getting a top 12 quarterback who gives the offense a dual-threat skill set we have rarely seen in New England.

NFL Rumors: How Patriots stayed under salary cap with Cam Newton deal

NFL Rumors: How Patriots stayed under salary cap with Cam Newton deal

The New England Patriots entered last weekend with just $651,000 in cap space, the lowest amount of any NFL team.

So, how the heck were they able to sign a former NFL MVP?

It's a fair question after New England reportedly inked free-agent quarterback Cam Newton to a one-year contract Sunday. We discovered more details on Newton's deal Wednesday, per reports: He has a base salary of $1.05 million ($550,000 of which is guaranteed) with incentives that can bring his earnings up to $7.5 million.

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According to Boston.com salary cap expert Miguel Benzan, the Patriots have $263,489 in available cap space following Newton's signing. If you're wondering how Newton's deal cost New England less than $400,000 in cap space, Benzan would like to refer you to the "Rule of 51."

The "Rule of 51" in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement is pretty straightforward: During the offseason, only the players with the 51 largest cap hits for the season are counted toward the salary cap.

Newton's deal -- which carries a $1.14 million cap hit, per Benzan -- bumps practice squad defensive lineman Tashawn Bower out of the top 51, meaning his $750,000 deal currently doesn't count against the cap.

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So, the Patriots effectively replaced Bower's contract with that of Newton, a difference of just under $400,000.

The "Rule of 51" only applies to the offseason, so Bill Belichick may have to do more maneuvering before the regular season begins. But as Benzan recently pointed out, Newton's incentives could be classified as "not likely to be earned," which means they wouldn't count against New England's 2020 salary cap even if he reaches them.

In any case, it's remarkable (or "disgusting," if you ask Richard Sherman) that New England was able to land a three-time Pro Bowl QB like Newton for such a discount.

The 31-year-old was hampered by shoulder and foot injuries over the last two seasons, though, which apparently scared other teams away before the Patriots swooped in Sunday.