N'Keal Harry

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address wide receivers?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address wide receivers?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

Like the running back position in New England, the Patriots could roll into 2020 with just about the same group if they so choose.

Julian Edelman is back. Same goes for Mohamed Sanu, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski. Phillip Dorsett is the lone regular contributor from the 2019 receiver room who's set to hit free agency. Matthew Slater, almost exclusively a special-teamer, is scheduled to be a free agent as well. Though Meyers showed promise in spurts throughout his rookie season, only Edelman, Sanu and Harry look like guarantees to be on the roster. 

Will the Patriots be OK with that trio as their top three?

Does Meyers make sense as the No. 4? Or does there need to be a significant upgrade talent-wise made to this unit via free agency, shuffling the depth chart and giving whoever's playing quarterback -- Tom Brady or someone else -- better weapons to work with? What was available at times last season was ugly.

BREAKING DOWN THE CURRENT ROSTER

Julian Edelman: Headed into his 34-year-old season, it's worth wondering exactly how much the Patriots will be able to depend on Edelman. He did -- despite injuries to his ribs, shoulder and knee -- put up one of the most productive seasons of his career, cracking 1,000 yards.

Mohamed Sanu: After a promising start to his Patriots career, including a 10-catch performance against the Ravens midseason, Sanu tailed off. He suffered a high-ankle sprain and had just 14 catches on 26 targets following that game in Baltimore. The Patriots dealt a second-round pick to get him so he's probably not going anywhere ahead of the 2020 season. They'll just have to hope more time in the system, and better health, yields better outcomes. 

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N'Keal Harry: The rookie first-round pick lost the first half of his season to injured reserve and had trouble finding his footing upon his return. He finished the year with 12 catches for 105 yards on 24 targets in seven games. He flashed contested-catch promise with a touchdown against the Cowboys and a leaping grab in Cincinnati that was called back due to penalty -- he was also an effective runner on end-around plays -- but the Patriots will be looking for much more consistency in Year 2. 

Phillip Dorsett: The Patriots signed Dorsett to a one-year deal last offseason, in all likelihood hoping he could reprise his 2018 role as a valuable reserve. Pressed into more regular action, he wasn't as efficient a target for Brady and by the end of the season he was ceding reps to rookies. He could return via free agency this offseason if the Patriots want a familiar face to come back and be able to fill in. But it feels as though both sides might be willing to find a fresh start. 

Jakobi Meyers: After a strong summer, Meyers didn't exactly hit the ground running, but he did end up as the team's most productive rookie wideout. He averaged 13.8 yards per catch -- 0.1 behind what Emmaunel Sanders did in San Fran and what Brandin Cooks did in Los Angeles -- and no rookie caught more contested targets (seven of 10), according to Pro Football Focus.

Gunner Olszewski: The Bemidji State product was the last to make the active roster out of camp but stuck around long enough to play in eight games before landing on injured reserve. He caught just two passes for 34 yards -- both against the Giants in Week 6 when the Patriots were hurting at the receiver spot -- but chipped in as the team's regular punt-returner before his injury. He returned 20 for 179 yards (9.0 yards per return, 20th in the NFL). 

Matthew Slater: Slater heads into free agency after another First Team All-Pro selection as a special-teamer, his fifth. He played 20 snaps in 2019 -- all as a run-blocker.

WHO IS POTENTIALLY ON THE OPEN MARKET?

Amari Cooper: This would be a Ruthian hack in free agency. Cooper might cost almost $20 million per year on whatever new deal he signs. The Patriots, though, have been bold in adding talent to their roster when they see glaring issues. Would they be this bold?

Seems unlikely that the Patriots would devote the necessary resources to land this one-time Nick Saban pupil, but it'd infuse the wideout room in New England with some much-needed, in-his-prime talent. If Tom Brady is willing to take pennies on the dollar to stick in New England with the promise that he'll have more to work with in 2020, Cooper should be the team's top-of-the-list item.

A.J. Green: The Patriots are in need of a vertical presence in the passing game. For years that was Rob Gronkowski. Hard to replicate that skill set at tight end, so it may have to be a receiver. After a year off, it's hard to know exactly how Green would fill this role . . . but it's what he's done for the majority of his career.

He'd be a much cheaper option than Cooper ($9 million per year might get it done), and he might be itching to play for a competitor. Green would make more sense than going after Emmanuel Sanders, another 30-something free agent this offseason, since the Patriots are already loaded up on interior veteran pass-catchers in Sanu and Edelman. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: FAMILIAR FACE

Danny Amendola: The Patriots might be set in the slot. But wouldn't it make sense to have a trusted option on the inside should Julian Edelman be forced to miss time due to injury? Amendola filled that role admirably in 2014 and 2016 when Edelman was healthy for the majority of the year. It allowed Amendola to sit back for portions of the year and then be used more liberally in the postseason.

He knows the offense. He wouldn't be looking to break the bank at this point in his career. He still holds respect for the organization, and anything he said upon his departure from New England in 2018 would be water under the bridge if Bill Belichick felt as though his receiver group would be better off with Amendola in it. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: UNDER-THE-RADAR OPTIONS

Breshad Perriman: It wasn't all that long ago that Perriman looked like the perfect Patriots reclamation project. They've had a long list of failed first-round draft picks come through their recevier room -- Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson -- and Perriman could've been the latest.

The only problem? He tore it up at the end of the 2019 season for the Bucs, finishing with career-highs in catches (36), yards (645) and touchdowns (6) while playing for his third team in his four-year career. He'd be a clever solution to New England's vertical issues, but he might've priced himself out of Patriots consideration with what he did at the end of the year.

Travis Benjamin: A much different type of vertical threat than Perriman (who stands 6-foot-2, 215 pounds), Benjamin is a mini-burner at 5-10, 175 pounds. He was placed on injured reserve in October of last season so his numbers were down across the board, but he's averaged over 15.0 yards per catch for his career and he has a wealth of return experience. He might be a cost-effective gamble at the position this offseason. 

Pharoh Cooper: The Rams took Cooper in the fourth round in 2016, and he went on to win First-Team All-Pro honors the following year for his work in the return game. For his career, he's returned 66 punts for 619 yards and 92 kicks for 2,213 yards.

The 5-foot-11, 200 pounder also finished with the eighth-best catch rate from the slot in 2019, according to PFF. He had 25 catches for 243 yards and a touchdown on the season. If the Patriots wanted some young depth in the slot, Cooper might be a good option. Sanu is in the final year of his deal and Edelman's contract runs out after 2021.

NFL rumors: Patriots scouts 'gushed' over this wide receiver at Senior Bowl

NFL rumors: Patriots scouts 'gushed' over this wide receiver at Senior Bowl

It's no secret the New England Patriots need to upgrade their talent and depth at wide receiver before the 2020 NFL season.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn't have enough playmakers at the position to help lead the defending champs back to the Super Bowl this past season. Injuries played a part in that, but overall, Patriots wide receivers didn't produce enough.

The good news for the Patriots is they likely will have 12 picks (including compensatory selections) in the 2020 NFL Draft, and this year's class is absolutely loaded at wide receiver.

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The Patriots reportedly found at least one wide receiver they liked at the Senior Bowl this week in Alabama. Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network witnessed Patriots scouts "gushing" over SMU star James Proche.

Keep this in the back of your mind: New England Patriots scouts were gushing over James Proche during today’s practice – I heard it firsthand. This doesn’t mean they are automatically drafting Proche, but he fits the bill for the type of receiver they love and have great success with.

Proche played four seasons at SMU. He caught 93 passes for 1,199 yards with 12 touchdowns as a junior in 2018, and then tallied 111 receptions for 1,225 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior this past season. He's listed at 6-foot and 193 pounds.

Here's some footage of Proche at this week's Senior Bowl practices, per Connor Brown of SB Nation:

The Patriots selected Arizona State wideout N'Keal Harry in the first round (32nd overall) of last year's draft. Harry was the first wide receiver drafted by Bill Belichick in the first round since he took over as Patriots head coach in 2000. Harry showed flashes of first-round talent, but injury derailed much of his rookie season. It's still way too early to give up on Harry, but 2020 is no doubt an important year for him.

The Pats would be wise to bring in a veteran wide receiver via free agency or the trade market, but it absolutely makes sense to also draft one or two players at the position given the quality of this year's class.

Curran: Can Patriots re-tool like they did a decade ago?

Core of the issue: Who makes up young Patriots nucleus for next reboot?

Core of the issue: Who makes up young Patriots nucleus for next reboot?

Editor's Note: For the first time since the 2010 offseason, the Patriots are looking at a "full" offseason, without a trip at least as far as the AFC Championship Game. Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry are detailing the challenges facing the team going forward. Read Tom's column here and click here to listen to the latest episode of Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast.

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The football-watching world was bombarded with this particular nugget not long after the Titans scampered off the field at Gillette Stadium having moved onto the Divisional Round: It was the first time the Patriots had been eliminated as early as the Wild Card Round since 2009.

It's a remarkable note, highlighting just how dominant this decade of football has been in New England. It also serves as a window into the franchise's history and therefore could be instructive as we try to determine how exactly the Patriots will try to bounce back as they did a decade ago. 

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Two seasons after the Patriots lost that Wild Card game to Baltimore, they were back in the Super Bowl. And that Super Bowl run set off a stretch of eight consecutive seasons when Bill Belichick's team made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game.

Looking back at how the Patriots rebounded from that particular early playoff exit in 2009, though quick, it clearly wasn't easy. Given the way the current roster is constructed, this particular bounce-back could be even more challenging.

WHY THE PRESSURE'S ON

There is no precise formula, of course, when it comes to building a consistent championship contender. But there is no doubt that for many years, each spring, the Patriots were able to replenish their team with key pieces brought aboard from the college ranks who helped set up the team for long-term success.

That 2009 iteration of the Patriots featured a roster in transition. Pillars of the organization — Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison — had moved on prior to the season. But there were young players, acquired in the draft, starting to assert themselves as serious contributors and leaders in their own right. And with each draft, the number of those young core players grew.

By the time the Patriots were back in the Super Bowl in 2011, they had young talents who'd been developed at One Patriot Place serving as foundational pieces, including 2008 picks Jerod Mayo and Matthew Slater, 2009 selections Sebastian Vollmer, Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman, and 2010 home-run picks Devin McCourty and Rob Gronkowski. Even the rookie class of 2011 had a say in the team getting to Super Bowl XLIV with first-round pick Nate Solder starting 13 games on the offensive line.

Despite going on an unprecedented run of AFC Championship Games and Super Bowl appearances — meaning Bill Belichick was generally picking near the bottom of the first round — the Patriots continued to draft well to keep their annual championship aspirations alive. Shane Vereen and Marcus Cannon, from Solder's class, ended up playing important roles in championships. Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones were bullseyes in the 2012 first round. Without a first-rounder in 2013, the Patriots still landed Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, who all contributed to title runs. In 2014, taken in the fourth round, James White ended up a key piece to the team's future.

Since then, the steady stream of cornerstone pieces arriving in the draft has slowed.

The Patriots hit on both Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, but only Mason remains on the team. The 2016 class, which saw a first-rounder wiped away due to Deflategate, is no longer represented on the Patriots roster as Joe Thuney and others are set to hit free agency. The 2017 draft class featured just four players and didn't produce a consistent starter. 

Using a draft-in-bulk approach in 2018, with nine players selected, the Patriots landed Isaiah Wynn in the first round. He looks like a quality left tackle, but he's missed three-quarters of his first two seasons due to injury. Sony Michel and Ja'Whaun Bentley are the other contributors remaining from that class. The effectiveness of the 2019 draft class is largely to be determined.

Compare that young nucleus built to help the Patriots rebound after 2009 to this one. The 2008-11 draft classes accounted for four Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pros and two second-team All-Pros through the 2011 season. The 2015-2018 classes did not account for any such honors through the 2018 season. Thuney was named a second-team All-Pro for his 2019 performance.

Even just looking at the roster without tallying up awards, the number of recently-drafted Patriots who've become core pieces and stuck is eye-opening. The team has a greater number of starting-caliber players under contract from the 2009 draft class (Chung and Edelman) than they do from the 2015 (Mason), 2016 and 2017 classes combined.

Belichick and his front-office staff have seemingly willingly gone with an older roster in recent years, perhaps in an effort to capitalize on their championship window as Brady neared the end of his career. Still, that approach — unafraid to trade picks or execute pick-swap deals for proven veterans — meant a smaller investment in rookie contracts than most other teams.

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In 2018, according to OverTheCap.com, only one team had fewer cap dollars committed to players on rookie contracts than the Patriots. That year, only two teams had a lower percentage of their active roster devoted to players on rookie deals (33 players). It worked out, clearly. They won a Super Bowl.

Last year, it was more of the same in terms of their rookie-contract investment. They entered the regular season with the oldest 53-man roster in football and got out to a record-setting pace with the oldest starting defense in the NFL. No team in the league had fewer players on rookie contracts (24) and no team committed fewer dollars to rookie deals.

Even with veterans such as Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins not currently counting against the 2020 roster, the Patriots are still slated to be a decidedly veteran team next season. No team has fewer players on rookie contracts at the moment (28), and no roster has a smaller percentage of players on rookie contracts making up their roster (52.8 percent). The next closest team in terms of the percentage of rostered players on rookie deals is the Saints (60.4 percent). 

The draft has breathed life into the Patriots dynasty for the better part of the past two decades. Building successful teams without drafted-and-developed contributors is possible — that 2018 roster is a good example of how a couple of low-yield draft classes doesn't have to extinguish a team's title hopes — and college players may be more difficult to successfully evaluate than ever before. But without a greater number of cost-effective impact additions from the drafted ranks, the next Patriots reboot could be Belichick's toughest yet. 

As one NFL executive familiar with the situation put it last offseason, leaning on free-agent signings and pick-for-player trades isn't the most sustainable plan of attack. If the Patriots don't start to make more of their draft-day dice rolls, they could find themselves in a real roster-building quagmire relatively quickly.

WHY THERE'S REASON FOR REBOOT OPTIMISM

Some of those roster-composition figures for the 2020 season can change. And fast.

The Patriots traded this year's second-round pick to the Falcons for Mohamed Sanu, but they still have one first-rounder, three thirds (including two projected compensatory picks), a fourth, four sixths (two compensatory picks) and three sevenths. That's a dozen selections to try to add to the nine players remaining on the roster from the 2019 draft class to try to jump-start a youth movement.

And it's not as though they need each of those picks to hit in order for a wave of young talent to land this fall. In 2010, the Patriots had more established talent on the offensive side of the ball than they do at the moment — Brady was at an MVP level, Wes Welker was one of the best receivers in the league, and the offensive line was loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber players — but adding Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end took them to another level. 

A hit or two, combined with better health throughout the course of the season, could have the Patriots looking like a different offense after 2019 was one of their least-efficient seasons on that side of the ball in years. 

Plus, there's the "redshirt" factor. Belichick has openly discussed how players coming off of quiet rookie seasons can turn into critical parts. There's no shortage of those types on the roster who — either because of injury or because they were blocked by veterans ahead of them on the depth chart — have untapped potential. 

Outside of rookie punter Jake Bailey, who quickly established himself as one of the best at his position in 2019, most of that class has a chance to take the Year 2 leap in 2020.

N'Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Damien Harris, Chase Winovich and Byron Cowart all got their feet wet with some game action and plenty of practice reps. Harry, who missed half the season due to injury, could benefit immensely from more time on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. Likewise, offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt — both of whom missed the season with injuries — will have a chance to earn roles this offseason.

Another point in New England's favor as it searches to reload on young talent: It has seen some of its best players come from the undrafted free agent ranks.

They've found gems in David Andrews (2015), Jonathan Jones (2016), Adam Butler (2017) and J.C. Jackson (2018) to provide the team with some of its best young talent. By their nature, undrafted rookies are gambles. But they're low-cost gambles, and another double-digit undrafted free agent class could yield a player or two upon whom the Patriots could rely. That's been their history. 

WHY THE QUARTERBACK DOMINO DETERMINES THE COURSE

How the Patriots handle 2020 could end up looking like 2010: Add a handful of capable young draft picks to a roster with established talent and a few promising young pros, and continue to build around Tom Brady. 

But is there any chance that the reboot Belichick directed in 2000 and 2001 ends up being the closer comparison? Might he make a change at the game's most important position, roll with a more cost-effective option there, and rely on a veteran-laden defense while reshaping the team to his liking?

The current iteration of the roster is unique. It's a different team and a different time. Neither 2001 nor 2010 provides perfect blueprints on how to approach this offseason. The quarterback decision, though, could dictate which way Belichick proceeds. 

If Brady ends up back in New England at a dollar figure that pays him near the top-third of quarterbacks in the NFL, then that could make it difficult to surround him with the veteran talent that would likely best accentuate his skill set. Would surrounding Brady with young players for a second consecutive season get the best out of the 43-year-old? And would that be in line with Belichick's credo of "what's best for the football team?"

If Brady ends up back in New England at a lower dollar figure that would allow him to be surrounded by a free-agent signing or two who'd make him more comfortable — perhaps trading picks for established veterans as well — that might be "what's best for the football team" in 2020.

But what about the seasons beyond? If there is an inevitable reboot afoot, would signing Brady to that type of deal simply postpone an inevitable roster reconstruction? And might it complicate the process with cap hits pushed down the road to be dealt with in later years?

If Brady ends up elsewhere, giving way to either second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham or a low-cost veteran, there will be growing pains. Still, in theory, it would provide the team with more roster and salary-cap flexibility. As it stands right now, thanks in part to pacts signed with Antonio Brown and Michael Bennett, only three teams have more dead money on their 2020 books than the Patriots, per OverTheCap.com.

Should Brady find himself in a different uniform next season, that dead-money number will jump another $13.5 million. Re-signing Brady prior to the start of the league year will avoid that kind of cap-hit acceleration — only $6.75M hits the cap — but depending on a new deal's structure, that decision may simply postpone the inevitable.

Even Belichick would acknowledge, whatever happens with Brady isn't entirely up to him. Any contract negotiation is a two-way street, as he put it in his year-end press conference. But it'd behoove the Patriots to have an idea of how they'd like to proceed with Brady as soon as possible. That way, they could use the legal tampering period in mid-March to surround Brady with veteran pieces if he's going to be back. If not, they could sit tight, save — they're in the middle of the pack of the NFL in terms of cap space — and hope they can thrive despite undergoing a roster renaissance.

Either way, the contributions they receive from their most recent draft classes will matter. The Patriots couldn't reboot when Belichick arrived in the early aughts without quality drafts. The same was true 10 years ago after an unceremonious Wild Card Round exit. 

Compared to other seasons this decade — when they've made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game — they have a few weeks more time to prepare for draft weekend. They have ammo. They just need to hit.