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Why is the Patriots Wide Receiving Corps So Terrifyingly Weak?

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In case you haven’t noticed, the Patriots are currently what I’ll euphemistically call “thin at wide receiver.” I call it that because it makes me feel better than what I’m really thinking, which is “this might be their weakest receiving corps since 2006, when their ‘No. 1′ (Reche Caldwell) was pretty much ‘No. 2′ (shit).”

It’s been a war of attrition over the last couple of months, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since The Somme in 1915, when the Brits and French suffered 632,000 casualties for modest gains. Trading lives for yards. The Patriots have lost four wideouts and slot guys, but it begs the question where the yards are going to come from. And a unit that looked like it had done a decent job of making up for the loss of Danny Amendola currently has this for a depth chart:

Julian Edelman – Suspended for four games
Chris Hogan – Career high in receptions: 41
Phillip Dorsett – 18 targets in 15 games last year
Cordarrelle Patterson – A professional kick returner
Devin Lucien – A 7th round practice squad guy
Matthew Slater – A professional gunner.
Paul Turner – I honestly do not know who he is and he might have just hacked his name onto the depth chart
Riley McCarron – A 5-9 UDFA last year who was cut by Houston and never came off the Pats practice squad
Braxton Berrios - Listed as 5-9 but standing next to McCarron he looks like his Mini Me

That’s what we’re looking at. Hogan, a couple of special teams guys and the rest are this:

merry-frodo-sam-pippin

Maybe capable of doing amazing things. Especially working with a heroic, handsome warrior and led by a brilliant, mysterious wizard in a grey cloak. But not a fellowship that’s going to strike fear into their enemies. So how did we get here? To this point where we are looking at the potential for the flat circle of time to rotate us back to the pre-Randy Moss/Wes Welker days when Caldwell was our top receiver by default with his 760 yards and 4 TDs? When the only the most homerish fanboy had anyone from the Pats on his Fantasy team? Let’s count the ways:

1) Guys Simply Not Panning Out. Jordan Matthews, Malcolm Mitchell and Kenny Britt were all cut while still on the injury list. In a class move by the organization, Eric Decker was allowed to retire rather than get cut. All of them had great potential. And probably should have panned out. Matthews was that Veteran Looking for a Redemption Season they’ve built this dynasty upon, but was never healthy. Mitchell was a revelation as a rookie two years ago but never saw the field again, not even in practice. The hit of the summer of 2018 was a little jam called “Patriots Coaches are Really High on Kenny Britt.” They must have been high on something, because no one ever saw him. And Decker’s hands were so bad that if he was under your window ready to catch you in a raging house fire, you might want to consider the option of just letting the flames consume you. But all were viable candidates to produce on this team this year. None did.

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2) Failure to Draft a Wide Receiver. While this point has some validity to it, the team gets a pass from me. Because this is in keeping with their core philosophy that the bust rate on wideouts is off the charts and drafting them is fraught with peril. Which is why, in his 19 drafts in New England, Bill Belichick has taken just 16 WRs, to 12 tight ends. And most of those have been late rounders like Edelman and David Givens, or special teamers like Slater. Like it or not, that philosophy of not investing much draft capital in the position has been one of the hallmarks of the team’s success. Note that the Vikings took Patterson 29th overall with a pick the Patriots traded to them, and he’s been a major disappointment as a pass catcher. Which is why they gave up on him after just four years.

3) The Brandin Cooks Trade. This one is a little harder to swallow. He was their leading receiver last year. They never would’ve paid him the Top 5 money he’s making in LA right now. But he still had a year on his deal and would’ve been a genuine asset on this team. In their defense, they did get major value for him, the 23rd pick as opposed to the 32nd they used to get him from New Orleans the draft before. And if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t feel so bad about it if Isaiah Wynn was protecting Brady instead of blowing his Achilles. (As an aside, “Blowing Achilles” is the best deleted scene from Troy. And well worth the price of the Blu-Ray.) But he isn’t, he did, and so I am.

4) The Scheme. As Eric Decker and so many other failed veterans have learned, the Patriots offense is not for everyone. Too many others who thrived in simpler systems are never able to grasp it. Chad Ochocinco was a Pro Bowler when he was assigned a number on the route tree, told to run it and get his hands on the ball. No one is given the luxury of that simplicity here so he failed spectacularly. The scheme Josh McDaniels runs got its start in the mid-70s, ironically enough with the Patriots, under Chuck Fairbanks. Named after coordinator Ron Erhardt and receivers coach Ray Perkins, the Erhardt-Perkins offense takes complex route concepts, reads and audibles, and gives them simple, often one word names. But with each pattern there are options, and options off of those options, depending on a bunch of variables. Not the least of which is how the defense is playing you.

Consider this from the 2004 offensive playbook they were using in Charlie Weis’s last season. I apologize for the lousy PDF-quality graphics. But I got this off a lousy PDF:

Patriots passing

OK, let’s get a little more complicated. Something with four options and one that changes the route based on Middle of Field Closed vs Middle of Field Open:

Patriots passing2

And taking it up a notch:

Patriots passing3

Now wrap your brain around this one. I’ll see your weather vane looking route in 22) OPTION and give you 36) SCAT, that looks like a symbol of an obscure Christian sect:

Patriots passing4

Imagine being Eric Decker and being handed this on a thumb drive and told to learn it. And this is just from the first couple of pages. And these are all solo routes. It goes on like this forever before you even get to the 2- and 3-man combos. Plus bear in mind, this is from 14 years ago. When is was heavily reliant on a bellcow running back like Antoine Smith or Corey Dillon. Since then it’s gone through McDaniels and Bill O’Brien and McDaniels again. So it crawled out of the sea, grew legs, lost its vestigial tail, started walking upright and learned to sprint. It’s a big ask to expect too many WRs to grasp it, so by definition the talent pool they’re drawing from is smaller. And you don’t change an entire scheme just to fit one or two guys into it. You simply don’t. And finally:

5) Julian Edelman’s Suspension. For nothing. For testing positive for a negative. A substance the NFL could never identify in a sample their Pee Patrol mishandled. The Patriots are partly to blame for the state of things. But that doesn’t mean Roger Goodell can’t kiss my ass over this.