If the Patriots wide receiver room was a car, a mechanic would look at you and say, “I’m sorry. You don’t have to replace everything but this is going to take a lot of work. Why didn’t you bring it in sooner?”
Start with the salvageable. Julian Edelman, even at 35, even coming off a knee surgery is still a player who can produce and move the chains thanks to guts, guile and short-area quickness.
He had an eight-catch, 179-yard game against Seattle in Week 2 with Cam Newton throwing to him. He had 100 catches for 1,117 yards when he was all beat up in 2019. He was Super Bowl MVP just two years ago. Whoever the Patriots bring in at quarterback would be fortunate to have Edelman around.
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The question will be, how’s the knee? My understanding is there’s no repairing it, just managing the pain. There’s also a contact situation to consider with Edelman. Even though he has a reasonable $2.8M contract, he’s got a $6.1M cap number this year and the Patriots can save almost $3.5M if they release him. The team isn’t hurting for cap space. They could use his presence and production. But it wouldn’t be a stunner if the Patriots wanted to knock down his number somehow.
Also of further use? Jakobi Meyers. He had 59 catches for 729 yards in 2020. And that’s after playing just 22 snaps in the first three games as he idled behind first-round pick N’Keal Harry. Every chance Meyers gets, he does something with. He even threw two touchdown passes last season. He’s never going to be a superstar but he’s going to continue to get better as more trust and better quarterbacking find him.
Speaking of Harry, it’s just not working for him here. He’ll be entering his third year and has 45 catches for 414 yards in 21 games. It’s been injuries, a seeming lack of confidence, tentativeness, misjudgment of how he’s being defended … it’s a lot.
It doesn’t help that Meyers is lighting it up and every other receiver taken early in the 2019 NFL Draft seems to be a Pro Bowler. He needs a great offseason to build confidence and then he needs an in-season payoff. Truth be told, though, he’d probably be better off getting traded and starting fresh.
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The rest of the wideouts under contract are Gunner Olszewski, Marqise Lee, Kristian Wilkerson, Isaiah Zuber and Devin Smith.
Olszewski is plainly talented with the ball in his hands. It’s getting it in his hands as a wideout that’s a chore. He’s not good at catching. But I wouldn’t bet against him improving that skill given the massive leap he’s made elsewhere since entering the league and converting from cornerback.
Lee opted out of 2020. He had productive years in 2016 and 2017, but missed all of 2018 and had just three catches in 2019. Don’t put your eggs in that basket.
Zuber, 23, had two catches for 29 yards and two carries for 21. Could be worth continuing to work with. Smith was a second-round pick in 2015 who ended 2020 on the Patriots practice squad. Same thing with Wilkerson who had two snaps last year.
Two guys who aren’t under contract but were decent in 2020? Damiere Byrd and Donte Moncrief. Byrd had 47 catches for 604 yards and felt like an upgrade over the surehanded but one-dimensional Phillip Dorsett. Moncrief played in six games and had a 15-yard catch to show for it.
If the 2021 Patriots can work with Meyers, Byrd, Edelman and Olszewski, there are things that each of them do well. But to get the best out of them, they need to be in roles that aren’t too big for their age or their skill sets.
Editor's note: Every week, Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran will evaluate a different position on New England's offense to reset where the team stands entering the offseason. Up next week: the tight ends.