Eric Decker

Dorsett's night encouraging, but questions remain for Patriots at wideout

Dorsett's night encouraging, but questions remain for Patriots at wideout

 

CHARLOTTE -- Phillip Dorsett didn't even really have a locker. 

One was assigned to him, of course. But with the visitor's room at Bank of America Stadium crowded by almost 90 Patriots, players claimed slivers of space for themselves wherever they could. Dorsett's was a few feet from the buffet, up against a wall, his clothes hanging on a black plastic chair. 

It wasn't exactly befitting of a man who will be the No. 2 receiver for the Patriots when the regular season begins. But that looks like the role Dorsett will take on come September, especially after the night he had against the Panthers. 

The Patriots lost their third preseason game, 25-14, but Dorsett was a bright spot with four catches on four targets for 36 yards. Tom Brady turned to him with almost a quarter of his throws, and he did so in some critical situations. 

Dorsett caught a quick-hitter and scampered up the sideline for 16. He caught a pass on an awkward route that had to be adjusted based on a hot route run by one of his teammates. Then he reeled in a fourth-down attempt from Brady that showed some real faith. 

"He trusted me, and we made the play," Dorsett said. "Knew it was coming. He was playing off. Gave me a hitch. Ran the hitch and converted. It's a big thing. I feel like we just gotta keep going. I'm growing every day here. I think I can keep rolling."

"Phil did a good job," Brady said. "He made some good plays. He's done a good job through the spring and through training camp. He's been dependable when he's been out there and it's been great to watch. We got him late last year, and I think he's just been grinding it out, trying to find a role, and I think he's done a great job."

With Julian Edelman scheduled to serve his four-game suspension through the first month of the season, Dorsett knows he'll have to be conditioned to play a great deal of snaps -- and sometimes play a great deal of snaps consecutively. 

The offensive regulars for the Patriots put together a 14-play drive in the second quarter that resulted in a field goal thanks in part to an unnecessary roughness penalty picked up by LaAdrian Waddle that pushed them back. The result wasn't ideal, but the conditioning was good.

"That was one of the main focuses for me was being out there and trying to string along a long drive," Dorsett said, reporters crowding around his island of stuff. 

"I know in the regular season, we're going to be out there for long drives. That's what we do. Some teams aren't going to give you the deep ball so you're going to have to dink and dunk down the field. Building that stamina, being on the field every play, that's one thing I try to focus on."

He's going to have to be ready to work. Dorsett looks like he'll be the biggest beneficiary workload-wise during Edelman's suspension. He and Chris Hogan will man the top-two receiver spots, while Rob Gronkowski and James White will be the old reliables at tight end and running back, respectively. 

It's a big spot for a player who was the clear No. 4 at his position (431 snaps, playoffs included) in 2017, catching just 14 passes. But night's like Friday will help Dorsett's cause because they're confidence-builders. 

"I think that's how you earn the trust of your coaches and teammates is to do it under real live circumstances," Brady said, "with play-clocks and situations and signals and we're gonna have to all be on the same page. We have to work hard on it, and we have two weeks to figure out who's gonna be out there doing it and try to go out do better each day in the meantime."

What the Patriots do in the meantime at receiver is anyone's guess. As encouraging as Dorsett's night was, it's still asking a lot for him to serve as a top-two wideout. And that ask is an indication of just how thin the depth chart is at that spot. 

Cordarrelle Patterson looks like the next best bet to see targets from Brady. He reeled off 10 yards on a crossing route and another target sent his way fell incomplete. The incompletion, though, may have served as an indication of how he and Brady still aren't quite synched-up. Brady tried to hit Patterson at his spot wide on the line of scrimmage, but Patterson started to slant off the line, and the pass sailed high and behind its target. 

Patterson averages about three touches per game for his career and looks like he may be the same type of player in New England. After him, it'd be hard to find a trustworthy option among the receiver bunch. 

The Eric Decker experiment remains a fruitless one. He didn't see a single snap with Brady, and when he got in for the third quarter, he quickly committed a false start penalty. Decker later appeared to miss a block on a receiver screen that saw Riley McCarron dropped for a loss. 

McCarron was the one getting time in four-receiver sets over Decker, and he was out as the team's top punt-returner. Both of those things are good arguments for him to make the 53-man roster as a depth option, but he dropped two passes against the Panthers and got rocked late on a hit that seemed to have him wobbly. 

Braxton Berrios remains out injured. Devin Lucien didn't play until deep into the second half. Paul Turner remains down the depth chart. 

It would be all well and good to say the Patriots will make up for their receiver depth with depth at other spots, but those spots are hurting too. Sony Michel is still down. Same goes for Rex Burkhead. Jacob Hollister is dealing with an injury that kept him out of action in Carolina. 

Brady's had more to work with other years at this point in the summer. 

Yes, Gronkowski is still a force. Yes, White and Hogan are dependable options. And yes, Dorsett looks like he's inching closer to Brady's circle of trust. 

But there's a lot the Patriots need to get cleaned up before the regular season begins, and Brady's going to need more than those four to do it. 

"Our execution needs to be better," he said. "You look back at a lot of the things I thought about the whole second half. All the things we need to do. And it's a lot of us. It's not so much what the other team is doing, although that's a very good defense. Our base execution needs to be better."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Phil Perry: Patriots WR situation is as ugly as we thought

Phil Perry: Patriots WR situation is as ugly as we thought

Phil Perry breaks down the Patriots loss to the Panthers in their third preseason game, and says the Patriots WR situation is as bad as we've been led to believe.

"There aren't a ton of options for Tom Brady to really go to," Perry said. "And that receiver spot is as ugly as we thought it was."

Five Takeaways from Patriots-Panthers: Clearer picture for receiving corps

Five Takeaways from Patriots-Panthers: Clearer picture for receiving corps

CHARLOTTE -- How much will the starters play? Which receivers will step up? Will the Patriots continue to be aggressive in getting after the quarterback? We had plenty of questions headed into Friday's preseason game between the Patriots and Panthers, and now they're answered. Here are five quick-hitting takeaways . . . 

ALL THE REGULARS GET A LOOK

Rob Gronkowski played two series before exiting. The Patriots needed a little extra tight end depth with both Jacob Hollister and Ryan Izzo unavailable, and the All-Pro gave them some at least into the early part of the second quarter. Gronkowski saw one target and did not catch a pass. Julian Edelman also saw plenty of burn with Brady. He was targeted five times in the first half, including three on third down. He had two drops, an issue he's been dealing with for much of the summer as he gets his legs under him. For those who wondered if the Patriots may force Brady to go without Edelman early in the game since Brady won't have him for the first four weeks (hand raised), that wasn't the case. Brady played the full first half but was done at the break. 

RECEIVER PICTURE COMING INTO FOCUS

As thin as the Patriots are at receiver, and as thin as they will be for the first month, they aren't forcing Eric Decker into situations with Brady. The two didn't play together at all. Decker didn't play in the first half, watching both Cordarrelle Patterson and Riley McCarron get work over him. Decker came on to start the third quarter . . . but with Brian Hoyer. Late in the first half, McCarron was on the field in four-receiver sets alongside Edelman, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett. McCarron also caught the first Carolina punt of the game. In this group, he may have the best shot at a roster spot after Hogan, Dorsett and Patterson for Week 1. McCarron did have a drop when he had an opportunity at a big gain late in the fourth quarter. It was his second drop of the drive. Dorsett had four catches on four targets for 36 yards in the first half. He made a difficult catch on a ball thrown a tick behind him over the middle on first down, he created a lot of room after the catch on a quick-hitter at the line of scrimmage, and Brady hit Dorsett on a fourth down conversion in the second quarter. For those hoping Brady would show some chemistry with someone not named Edelman, Hogan or Gronkowski . . . there was your evidence. 

THE MORE YOU CAN DO FOR McCOURTY

Jason McCourty was deployed in a variety of ways against the Panthers. He was on the first-team kickoff unit, he played corner, and then he saw reps as a deep safety. Late in the first half and into the second, McCourty was aligned deep, as his twin brother has done so many times in the past. That's a new development for the veteran defensive back, but it may help him carve out a role on the team. If he can be a dependable jack-of-all-trades option for the Patriots, putting his experience and understanding of the defense to use, there's value there. He made a strong tackle down by the goal line for a loss of one on Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne early in the third quarter. 

YOUNG CORNER CHECK

One of the feel-good developments for the Patriots in this game came when Cyrus Jones got onto the field to return the opening kickoff of the second half. He showed good vision and change-of-direction ability in bringing the kick back 27 yards, but a penalty brought the ball back to the New England five-yard line. He also had returns of 18 and 20 yards in the third quarter. For a player still gaining confidence in his knee after tearing his ACL last summer, those were probably encouraging reps. With Duke Dawson still out injured, Jonathan Jones looks like the top "star" option in the slot. He saw third-down action on Carolina's first drive of the game. Keion Crossen saw some time late in the first half as an outside corner opposite Stephon Gilmore with Eric Rowe (the team's top two cover men) in the slot. Crossen made a pair of pass breakups in the fourth quarter. JC Jackson, Ryan Lewis and AJ Moore didn't see action defensively until the second half, though Jackson saw early special teams work for the third consecutive preseason game. Lewis was in coverage when the Panthers scored early in the fourth to go up 25-3. 

MONITORING OTHER POSITIONAL BATTLES

Matt Tobin looks like he has a chance to be the beneficiary of Isaiah Wynn's season-ending injury as he was the one to first replace Trent Brown at left tackle. If the Patriots want to carry legitimate depth at tackle once again this season -- they needed four starters at tackle last year -- then Tobin could be their fourth. Meanwhile, at running back, Jeremy Hill was the first "big back" on the field. He came off briefly in the first quarter after losing his shoe, but he was the selection over Gillislee early on. Hill has appeared to have the lead on Gillislee there the last few weeks. Gillislee was on the field late in the game. On the defensive side of things, there's an interesting mix brewing at defensive end. Second-year man Keionta Davis got the start and played a large portion of the first half. Seeing him in the game as early and as often as he was, ahead of Derek Rivers, was a bit of a surprise. The Patriots clearly like Davis, and his early work seemed to be a chance to get a look at him against some top-end competition. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE