FOXBORO — The much-maligned Patriots wide receiver group entered the preseason like swaggering Vince McMahon GIF last Thursday night in Detroit.
I was at the head of the maligner line because, simply, the NFL production from guys who’ve been in the league has been modest and the rest of the wideouts were newcomers.
But Thursday night against the Lions was an unqualified success as rookies Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry jumped off the screen with their physicality, smoothness and hands. Eight different receivers had catches, from the quick and little Braxton Berrios to the long and silky Dontrelle Inman.
And even if the Lions DBs left a ton of cushion and weren’t interested in pushing, it was still an auspicious start.
“We got a lot of guys,” said wide receiver Phillip Dorsett when I copped to slamming the wideout crew. “It’s the National Football League, everybody can play. If you can’t play, you wouldn’t be here. We have a lot of different variety of guys, guys that can play inside and out and it’s competition. We’re making each other better every day.”
The variety is what’s intriguing. I’m generalizing, but the Patriots for a decade have had a sudden slot who opens things up for a mammoth tight end. The outside receiver is an accessory and the fourth receiver — Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Dorsett — is an assassin defenses lose track of.
This year is going to be different. One, because the mammoth tight end is gone. Two, because the outside receiver is going to be a bread-and-butter spot. And three, the outside receivers — Harry, Meyers and Julian Edelman if Berrios turns into a capable slot — have inside-outside ability.
Provided the Harrys, Meyers, Berriosssessesss, Inmans, etc. can be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there when the throwing gets tough. That’s something Dorsett has proven.
“It’s advanced,” said Dorsett. “And that’s why a lot of guys can’t play here. It continuously evolves. You got guys who can play inside and out. If you’re versatile, you can play in this offense. It’s easier to play here when you learn it conceptually instead of learning one position. I think that’s what makes it hard for a lot of guys.”
“It’s tough,” he added. “It takes a long time to learn. You get in what you put in. If you take the time and study it and learn it, you’ll learn it. But if you put it to the side and come in and do what you’re told to do you won’t learn it. You gotta put the work in.”
I thought that part from Dorsett — that a receiver can’t come in and just do what he’s told as if it’s paint by numbers — was fascinating. Because it gets right to the meat of the issue of why some guys can do it and others — though talented — can’t. Often, Patriots receivers are charged with altering their route after the snap.
Inside leverage from the corner and the safety on the deep hash? That means the tight end’s route is going to be X and the slot is going to have to go Y yards downfield and break it back to Z? Right? And if it’s not right, the greatest quarterback in NFL history is going to throw to a spot that said receiver was supposed to be standing in and his interception is now a pick-6? Good times.
Dorsett gets the concepts. Even though his output has been modest through two seasons with the team — 60 targets in 31 games, 44 catches, 290 yards and three touchdowns — he’s money when Brady goes to him (73.3 percent catch percentage).
His limitation, mainly, is his size. Despite being absurdly fast, he’s small and slightly built. He’s not an inventive after-the-catch runner, which is probably fine because he’s not built for the same punishment small but stocky guys like Troy Brown, Amendola and Edelman were and are.
Even though Brady went away from Dorsett once the Patriots traded for Josh Gordon in 2018, the quarterback is a huge fan.
“Whenever he’s been called on, he’s come in and made plays," Brady said last December. "Whenever the ball is in his hands, he’s dangerous. He’s great running with the ball. He’s a really crisp route-runner. He can play all the positions and just so impressed with how he’s handled everything this year. I really love playing with Phil.
"He’s done a great job for us.”
Why the love?
“I think it’s the way I go about my work, the way I take on the meetings and come on the practice field I think that’s what it is,” said Dorsett. “I appreciate him and I’m just glad he appreciates me.”
Dorsett is now in his third year with the Patriots and — after joining the team at the end of training camp in 2017 when he was traded by the Colts in exchange for Jacoby Brissett — only Edelman has a better grasp of what’s going on at the position than Dorsett does.
He could use that knowledge as leverage over the younger wideouts he’s competing with. He won’t.
“It doesn’t matter who I’m competing against, if you need help, I’m gonna help you,” said Dorsett. “No matter what. It’s all friendly competition because we’re all on the same team. We know we’re fighting for jobs but we’re on the same team and the one goal is to win. The guy who knows it the most, the guy who can play it the most, wins. But at the end of the day, I’m an easygoing guy but my goal here is to win.”
Dorsett, a first-round pick in 2015, is still a young player at 26. Just like the armada of young players who’ve come in this season, he too has room to grow. That’s part of the reason he re-signed here in March. He’s got a modest deal — $1.5M salary with another $500K if he makes the team — but he’s betting on himself a bit.
The quarterback he plays with also makes a difference.
“I understand what it is (to be playing with Brady),” he acknowledged. “It definitely is an honor. I loved him before I got here. He was my favorite quarterback. Now I’ve got a chance to know him, had a chance to play with him and it definitely is an honor.”
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