When the Patriots traded for Josh Gordon in the first month of the season, they did so out of desperation. They needed a wide receiver. Gordon became available. The price was right, and the skill set was tantalizing.
As Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran put it, for three months Gordon gave the Patriots more than many expected, and the Patriots may have given Gordon more than he expected.
The hope, of course, is now that Gordon will be away from football -- away from the spotlight that the Patriots so carefully tried to manage for him -- he can devote more time to dealing with his mental health.
The Patriots, meanwhile, need to figure out what they'll do from here.
They'd become dependent on Gordon's presence on the outside and his big play ability. Despite not playing with the Patriots for the first three weeks of the season, he's seen 565 snaps with New England, more than James White and Sony Michel. Rob Gronkowski (544) hasn't played that many snaps since Week 4. Julian Edelman is the team's only skill position player who's seen more work since Gordon's arrival.
Gordon is second among NFL receivers who've played 50 percent of their teams snaps with 18.0 yards per catch this season, and Tom Brady's quarterback rating when targeting Gordon is 109.9, which is better than when Brady throws to White (100.7), Edelman (96.8) or Gronkowski (107.7).
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Gordon wasn't necessarily Brady's go-to option in critical situations -- as evidenced by last weekend's loss, that's still Gronkowski and Edelman -- but he was still targeted on third and fourth down 18 times with the Patriots. That's just three fewer such targets than Gronkowski, according to Sharp Football Stats, and four fewer than Edelman.
Though the majority of Gordon's production came on slants, posts and back-shoulder throws, his size, his strength at the catch point and his ability to create yards after the catch (6.7 yards after the catch per reception, second among receivers with 50 percent of their team's offensive snaps) made him a dynamic threat any time he was on the field.
The Patriots will rely on Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett to carry a more significant load with Gordon unavailable, but Hogan is averaging fewer than two catches per game since Gordon's acquisition (506 snaps since Week 4, 22 catches on 29 targets) and Dorsett hasn't been used enough to prove whether or not he can be reliable (176 snaps since Week 4, 15 catches on 18 targets).
Cordarrelle Patterson could also continue to factor into the mix as a down-the-field presence. He's done more as a receiver over the last three weeks than he has in any three-game stretch this season (124 yards, catching seven of eight targets). Though he still has limitations as a route-runner, Brady has shown a willingness to go to Patterson, even in critical spots.
Patterson saw Brady's second pass of the game against the Steelers, he later converted a third-and-five (in a game when the Patriots went just 3-for-10 on third down), and he very nearly converted a third-and-nine on the same drive with an acrobatic move to bounce off of contact to try to keep his feet. In Miami, with the Patriots down in the first half, it was Patterson who was on the other end of Brady's go-ahead touchdown dart.
The Patriots could possibly turn to more "12," "21" or "22" personnel groupings (two tight ends, two backs or two tight ends and two backs, respectively) with Gordon out to give their offense a different look. Rex Burkhead, Jacob Hollister and Dwayne Allen are all healthy so they have the necessary people available to turn to those packages.
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The issue is, the Patriots are already using some of those sets (21 and 22, specifically) more frequently than most. They turn to "11" personnel (three receivers) only 57 percent of the time, which is the fifth-lowest percentage in the league. And even if they want to roll with two-receiver sets, they'll still need to find someone to replace Gordon, who was the No. 2 and used in most packages.
Something the Patriots could do in Gordon's absence is try to get a little more creative with how they help receivers create separation. They need some assistance in that regard, and there are route cominations -- we detailed several this offseason -- that could help them do it. It will also be interesting to see if the Patriots can take advantage of one benefit they'd get from utilizing players who've been in the system longer than Gordon -- such as an ability to play multiple positions in the offense -- to do more before the snap. Motions, shifts, and aligning in unusual spots within a given formation could all give defenses headaches and help the Patriots move the football without their most physically-gifted wideout.
Gordon was someone the Patriots had leaned on to deepen their reservoir of receivers and help make their offense more explosive. But what he did to opposing defenses was just as valuable, if not more so. On the outside, he gave opposing coaching staffs someone to concern themselves with -- someone who could hurt them vertically or take an underneath route, break a tackle, reverse the field and pick up a first down.
The Steelers, for instance, either had two bodies in Gordon's area or outright doubled him a dozen times over the weekend. Edelman was doubled at points as well, but the only other Patriot who saw that level of attention was Gronkowski. Gordon was a focal point of the Pittsburgh defensive game plan, and they shut him down (one catch on two targets).
Without him, the field could suddenly feel much more cramped for Brady and the Patriots passing game as defenses shift their attention elsewhere. For an offense that already had issues creating separation, Gordon's skill set can't and won't be replaced.
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