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Patriots' Wide Receivers Could Fumble Super Bowl Chances

New England Patriots' wide receivers Danny Amendola (80) and Aaron Dobson (17) will be intricate parts towards the team's success in 2014 - Mandatory Credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

New England Patriots’ wide receivers Danny Amendola (80) and Aaron Dobson (17) will be intricate parts towards the team’s success in 2014 – Mandatory Credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The New England Patriots made radical moves at the wide receiver position prior to the 2013 season, as the position was almost completely revamped.

Gone were the top three receivers from 2012, as veterans Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Deion Branch were shown the door. In their place were free agent slot-receiver Danny Amendola, undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins and draft picks’ Aaron Dobson, and Josh Boyce. The only holdover at wide receiver was former seventh-round draft pick, and converted Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman.

As the 2014 season approaches rapidly, the New England Patriots continue to have many questions about their wide receiver group following an extremely inconsistent 2013 season. In free agency and the draft the Patriots only re-signed Edelman and brought in former Carolina Panthers’ receiver Brandon LaFell, while waiting until their last pick in the seventh-round to draft another wideout to stabilize the corps.

After being the team’s top receiver in 2013, Edelman returned after testing the waters of free agency. Despite a breakthrough season topping 120 receptions and 1,200 yards receiving, he returned on a discount. The previous off-season saw Edelman also barely garnering any interest before re-signing in New England. Whether the Patriots or the rest of the NFL believe Edelman is a top receiver, in the Patriots system his numbers speak for themselves and re-signing for four years and up to $19 million total is quite a bargain.

Last offseason, when slot-receiver Wes Welker stunningly signed with the Denver Broncos, the Patriots acted quickly, and inked former St. Louis Rams’ slot-receiver Amendola before the ink dried on Welker’s contract in Denver. Amendola, however, had injury issues all season long continuing his career-long woes with injuries.  Amendola counts almost exactly the same against the salary cap, whether kept or released, so he should have his chance at redemption in 2014.

Last year, the expectation was that Amendola was the top wide receiver, and Edelman was the punt returner who could step in as a backup if injuries cropped again for Amendola. In Week 1 last season, Amendola tore a groin muscle, but returned to the game and had ten receptions for 104 yards against Buffalo – keying New England’s victory. Amendola then missed three-straight games due to the groin injury and was in and out of the lineup all season.

In those three games, Edelman was targeted 33 times by quarterback Tom Brady, and with 27 receptions over those three games Edelman cemented his role as the top target. Amendola returned in Week 5, but never quite seemed the same. Other than opening day, Amendola had only one performance in Week 15 against Miami, where he had double-digit receptions and over 100-yards receiving. Even then, the memory of the game was marred by Amendola dropping the winning touchdown pass in the end-zone with less than 30-seconds to play in the game.

Beyond their slot-receivers, the Patriots made a significant investment in the 2013 NFL Draft with Dobson, and Boyce. In addition, the Patriots found a solid player in undrafted free agent Thompkins, who played 468 of the team’s 536 offensive snaps (87%) in the first seven weeks of the season before injuries slowed him considerably in the second-half. Thompkins looked like the answer as a possession receiver in the offense, as he effortlessly replaced Brandon Lloyd’s role, and 2012 production over the first two months of the season.

Dobson showed significant potential outside the numbers and down the field. Despite some issues with drops, he was making great strides before missing large chunks of time in the second-half of the season. Dobson had foot surgery after the season to address a stress fracture, but should be ready for training camp in July. Only 22-years-old, Dobson has the size, speed, hands, and body control to make big plays downfield. The key question is his health and ability to get on the same page as Brady.

Boyce did not have the early impact that Dobson and Thompkins had, but did flash some promise in the offense in his limited playing time in 2013. Able to play in the slot or outside, the versatile young receiver is loaded with untapped potential. Like Dobson and Thompkins, the key for Boyce is to remain healthy, absorb the playbook, gain the trust of Brady, and then make that big step in his second year to give the offense another weapon.

With all of the injuries at wide receiver, the Patriots were forced to lean upon their rookie wideouts early on in the season.

The New England depth chart is deep at wide receiver with quantity, but the question is in the quality. After a significant investment last season in the NFL Draft with Dobson and Boyce the Patriots are looking for considerable improvement from the duo. With Thompkins, the three young players all stepped up at various times during the season before injuries derailed them. All three have high expectations for 2014.

The New England Patriots waited until their final pick in the 2014 NFL draft to add some competition at wide receiver when they selected Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon in the seventh-round. The 5-foot-8, 184-pound receiver joins Amendola, Edelman, Boyce and free agent LaFell as players who can play in the slot. Gallon may be a special teams player initially though.

LaFell adds size and a veteran presence to the position, while his contract with $3 million  guaranteed seems to make him a guarantee to be a target for Brady in 2014. At 27 years of age, the young veteran adds another receiver who can line up anywhere on the field, and give the position versatility that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ craves for the offense.

While Dobson is likely a roster spot lock –  along with LaFell,Edelman and Amendola – Thompkins and Boyce are on the bubble, and their spots aren’t guaranteed after having up-and-down rookie seasons. Special teams play could increase Gallon’s chances of making the roster, and undrafted free agents Ja-Mes Logan and Reggie Dunn are the longest of long-shots at this time.

At tight end the Patriots are again counting on Rob Gronkowski returning to health, after he was slowed by off-season surgery. Last year saw Gronkowski missing time as he was recovering from both back and forearm surgery. In 2014, he is still rehabilitating from his season-ending knee injury against Cleveland last season. Behind him the Patriots had little depth with halfback Michael Hoomanawanui, and roster-bubble tight end D.J. Williams.

If Gronkowski starts and stays healthy throughout 2014, the Patriots will be fine at tight end. If not, they will be forced to adjust the offense – just like they did in 2013. In fact, the one constant in the Patriots playoffs the past three seasons has been the lack of a healthy Gronkowski.  

The Patriots may not be done adding players at the tight end position, as they have brought in veteran free-agent tight ends Dustin Keller, Ben Hartsock and Nate Byham to Gillette Stadium for tryouts in recent weeks. With a weak draft class at the position, the Patriots chose wisely to pass on the position, and focused instead on an intriguing pair of undrafted free agents in Asa Watson and Justin Jones. They also added tight end Kyle Auffray to the 90-man roster this week.

Jones and Watson are both interesting players with a number of question marks. Jones is a massive target at 6-foot-8, but sat out the 2013 season due to academic issues at East Carolina. Watson is former Patriots first-round draft pick (Benjamin Watson’s younger brother), but he dealt with a heart issue in college that cost him the 2011 season. Auffrey was out of football last season after being cut by Arizona following training camp.

After another offseason of uncertainty, the Patriots have a collection of wide receivers and tight ends who bring inexperience and injury concerns without any clear answers for 2014. A return to health from some key contributors could leave New England with a wealth of playmakers to deploy all over the field.

If the young receivers improve, the veteran receivers stay active, and the Patriots can get Gronkowski on the field for the entire season, the offense should be back to their explosive and high-scoring ways.

However, there remains a number of “ifs” in Brady’s arsenal.

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