FOXBORO – When the Patriots traded for Josh Gordon last September, it was the 28th wide receiver transaction the team had made to that point.
In trying to overhaul a position that lost Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks, the team cycled through a parade of players – Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, Eric Decker, Jordan Matthews, Devin Lucien, Corey Coleman – who didn’t work out for various reasons.
Gordon was anything but a sure bet, but the Patriots were desperate. Now, it can be easily argued that the Gordon bet didn’t pay off. He was gone from the team before the end of the regular season. Hence, fail.
But I’d contend it was a success on two fronts.
First, his production – 40 catches on 68 targets in 11 games – exceeded what I believed he’d give and helped the Patriots buy time as they figured out their 2018 offensive personality. He helped them win games.
Second, Gordon’s playing style opened a door in Tom Brady’s game that’s only been occasionally cracked open. It gave him a big, strong outside receiver who could defeat defensive backs with physicality. And even if Gordon wasn’t the perfect co-worker, Brady warmed to the option and went to Gordon. A lot. And the Patriots became more of a bully on offense.
And it’s clear they plan on continuing on that path.
On Friday, I asked offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels about first-round wide receiver N’Keal Harry. How he’s a unique addition to the offense, the way he foresees the offense utilizing him and the overall philosophy of being able to morph.
“I think the biggest thing we try to do with our team and our offense in particular is take guys who have a skill and a talent and don’t try to fit them to what we’ve done in the past,” said McDaniels. “If you try to do that, you tell me where the next Troy Brown is. Or the next Logan Mankins or the next Tom Brady. We’ll try to go get that guy. It’s not that easy.
“You have to have enough flexibility and versatility in your system that you can maybe feature the X-receiver. Or the Z-receiver. Or the tight end. Or two tight ends. Or the halfback. Whatever style you want to be, it should reflect the talent of your team. So that’s what we’re gonna do with (Harry) and see what happens. Now, he’s a rookie and he’s got a long way to go but in terms of him being different, he is. And we’ll try to see what he does well and see what can fit in his wheelhouse.”
“It’s always interesting when you add an element for players that maybe they necessarily haven’t done as much of something,” McDaniels said when asked about how the 42-year-old Brady might warm to a player with Harry’s obvious physical skills. “Years ago, we hadn’t been a big 12 (one back, two tight ends) personnel team and all of a sudden we did that. Back in 07, we went to 11 (one back, one tight end) personnel and spread the field. Years after that, we were more of a tempo team. It kind of moves and really reflects your team.”
What the drafting of the 6-foot-3 Harry and the signings of 6-foot-3 Demaryius Thomas, 6-foot-3 Maurice Harris and 6-foot-3 Dontrelle Inman indicates is that they want to be bigger at wideout than they were when it was Cooks, Amendola, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Julian Edelman at the receiver spots. If Gordon ever gets back from indefinite suspension, there’s another player that’s 6-3.
In replacing Rob Gronkowski, they have added 6-6, 260-pound Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, 6-foot-6, 245-pound Matt Lacosse and 6-3 Benjamin Watson who is as physically strong a tight end as there is in the league.
They run with a fullback, James Develin. They are now two-deep with between-the-tackles backs having spent a first-round pick on Sony Michel last year and a third-rounder on Damien Harris this year.
NFL defenses began embracing the use of five, six and seven DBs and defensive linemen who built for speed almost a decade ago. The Patriots’ dabbled in exploiting that trend for a while but the second half of last season seemed to be when they said, “Screw it, this is who we will primarily be.”
Up-tempo and empty will never go out of style for the Patriots offense, but now they are very well-equipped to be a grinding offense rather than a finesse one.
Who will they be week-to-week? As always, said McDaniels, whoever they need to be.
“You have to look at who you have and what they do well and then you gotta look at, ‘Alright, who are we playing and what are the best advantages we can gain this week?’ “ he explained. “You try to, as many times as you can in a game, you try to gain an advantage. Sometimes that’s with skill. Sometimes that’s with size, sometimes that’s with tempo, sometimes that’s with play-style or personnel groupings. But you just take as many good football players in a room and coach them as best you can.
“Right now, we’re not making any of those determinations,” McDaniels added. “Today and for the next couple months, we’re not doing any of that. Now it’s about foundation, evaluation, let them rep, see what happens. Is it good enough? Is it not? Do we keep doing it? I don’t think we really know the ansewers about what we’re gonna look like in September and October yet. That’s for another day down the road but that’s why this part of the year is fun.”
As we discussed the wide receiver personnel with McDaniels, he acknowledged that the Patriots are perceived to be a “small wideout” team.
“I know people make a big deal because we have had some players that are a little smaller be successful, whether it be Troy (Brown) or Wes (Welker) or Danny (Amendola),” said McDaniels. “I don’t really include Julian in that category but Julian’s not a big, big guy.”
Ben Volin of the Boston Globe raised an eyebrow on the exclusion of Edelman.
“He plays some of the some of the same position but I think in general terms that’s always been kind of a misconception,” McDaniels said of Edelman being perceived as a slot receiver. “Troy played inside the formation, Wes played inside the formation, Danny played inside the formation. Julian plays a lot outside the formation. Does Julian do some of those things inside the formation? Absolutely he does. But he does a lot more on the outside in the running game and passing game. It’s what he’s become. There’s a little bit of a difference based on the way we’ve used him than those other guys.”
The versatility Harry showed at ASU as a player who could perform inside the formation and win with size and vise-grip hands could give Edelman a chance to bounce outside more than he was able to in 2018. Again, that’s a developing situation but it seems that the Patriots would prefer Edelman not be consigned to the slot.
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