Everything can change in the blink of an eye.
And the New England Patriots -- along with their once-depleted receiver unit -- know that all too well.
At one point this summer, the reigning Super Bowl champions were looking at a wide receiver position that was extremely thin, featuring undrafted receiver Jakobi Meyers at the No. 1 target for Tom Brady's offense. To be fair, Meyers is having quite the preseason and has a great shot at making the opening 53-man roster, but that's hardly who you want leading a position group from a team that just hoisted a Lombardi.
Julian Edelman was on NFI, Josh Gordon was suspended by the league, Demaryius Thomas was on PUP, first-rounder N'Keal Harry was banged up, and the injury list went on.
Now, things are looking up.
Over the course of a week, Edelman was activated following his thumb injury, Josh Gordon was conditionally reinstated by the NFL, and Demaryius Thomas has also come off PUP after suffering a torn Achilles in late December.
While certainly encouraging, this wave of good news for the Patriots should be looked at with cautious optimism. At its peak, this group could arguably be as deep and as talented as any other team in the league. On the flip side, they could just as easily see things dry up and have one of the worst supporting casts that Tom Brady has seen in quite some time. It's the highest of highs in terms of the ceiling and the lowest of lows in terms of floors.
Before we go too much further on what could happen, let's simply breakdown what we're looking at.
What the Patriots have
At the time this article is being written, New England's receiver group consists of:
- Julian Edelman
- Josh Gordon
- N'Keal Harry
- Demaryius Thomas
- Phillip Dorsett
- Jakobi Meyers
- Matthew Slater
- Braxton Berrios
- Maurice Harris
- Damoun Patterson
- Gunner Olszewski
- Cameron Meredith
- Ryan Davis
How many they can carry
Of this group of 13, the Patriots will likely carry six receivers on the opening 53-man roster in a similar fashion to what occurred in 2017 (2018 was a bit of an outlier season with Julian Edelman's four-game suspension).
This is counting special teams ace Matthew Slater as he does qualify as a receiver, despite serving as a gunner. Slater has lined up as a receiver on the rarest of occasions over the course of his career, but he does practice with the unit. So, in reality, that makes five players, who'll serve significant roles in the receiving game to make the roster.
There is a scenario where the Patriots could hold on to seven receivers (counting Slater) if they decide to use the open roster spot that comes with tight end Benjamin Watson's suspension.
Who's in, who's out
Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, N'Keal Harry, and Matthew Slater are slam dunks to be on the team to start the year. Undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers has turned in a strong enough summer to have an inside track at role on the 53-man roster. Meanwhile, Demaryius Thomas, who was just activated off PUP, is simply too tantalizing of a talent to give up on thus far, if healthy.
For that potential final spot, it's a competition, in my mind, between Phillip Dorsett, Maurice Harris, and Braxton Berrios. That leaves Damoun Patterson, Gunner Olszewski, Cameron Meredith and Ryan Davis on the outside looking in at the moment.
Best case scenario
In a perfect world, the Patriots have arguably one of the deepest and talented receiver units in all of the league.
Julian Edelman: Of course, Edelman is the most concrete of the bunch as he comes off a Super Bowl MVP performance last year and should continue to be Tom Brady's security blanket once again. After all, Edelman did put up with a 2018 campaign where he caught 100 balls for 1,238 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games played (including playoffs). That was Edelman coming off a torn ACL in 2017, so there's a case to be made that he'll be even more productive next year.
Josh Gordon: As it relates to Gordon, this is a guy who was New England's leading receiver at the time of his suspension from the league last season. Gordon built up a quick rapport with Tom Brady and was able to haul in 40 passes from TB12 for 720 yards and three touchdowns. As long as Gordon stays on the straight and narrow, he possesses the talent, acumen, and chemistry with Tom Brady to be a serious threat.
Demaryius Thomas: The former Broncos and Texans receiver is coming off a torn Achilles, but has recently been able to come off PUP, giving him three weeks to get ready for the start of the regular season. He's not a sure thing to make the roster, but in this best-case scenario, he comes close to the type of player he's been as recently as 2017 when he caught 83 passes for 949 yards and five scores. Not only does Thomas serve as another big-bodied receiver that Tom Brady can use in this post-Gronk offense, but Thomas, in this vision, serves as ideal Josh Gordon insurance, in case the talented, but trouble receiver has a slip-up.
N'Keal Harry: For the first time in his Patriots tenure, Bill Belichick elected to take a receiver in the first round of the NFL Draft with Harry. He's already been compared to greats like Larry Fitzgerald, Dez Bryant, and Anquan Bolden. While he likely won't reach those heights in Year 1, if Harry can put up a rookie campaign that is reminiscent to Deion Branch's first year in the league (68 targets for 43 receptions, 489 yards, and two touchdowns), that could help New England's passing game immensely. If he can use that big-body in the red zone, all the better. In an ideal world, Harry has the size to pose a matchup threat similar to what the Patriots had with Rob Gronkowski over the past nine years.
Jakobi Meyers: With his play this preseason, Meyers likely will make the team as an undrafted receiver out of N.C. State. He's simply answered the bell whenever he's been called on throughout the summer. If continues into the regular season, New England could be looking at another safety valve for Brady underneath in the middle of the field.
Worst case scenario
Julian Edelman: There's really no worst-case scenario as it relates to Edelman. He is the most secure option the Patriots have currently at receiver. That said, there's always the risk that the wear and tear finally catches up to the 33-year-old.
Josh Gordon: The biggest question mark on offense. He's currently on NFI, but most expect him to be activated prior to the start of the regular season. There's no denying Gordon's talent. We saw it on full display last season for 11 games. The problem is that he's unreliable as he continues to battle demons off-the-field. He hasn't played a full 16-game schedule since his rookie year. The Patriots changed their offense to cater Gordon when he arrived last season and then had to change it up again on the fly when he was suspended in December. It ended up working out for the Patriots in the end, but that's no slam dunk of Gordon once again falls off the wagon.
Demaryius Thomas: The concern surrounding Thomas is that he's a 31-year-old receiver that is less than a year removed from a torn Achilles. He's no slam dunk to make the team and could very easily be the next veteran receiver to follow the path of Reggie Wayne, Torry Holt, Chad Ochocinco, and Eric Decker to join the Patriots to ultimately flop.
N'Keal Harry: As I mentioned above, Harry is the first receiver taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by Bill Belichick in his tenure with the Patriots. The hoodie had taken receivers high in the draft and hasn't exactly been a marksman for that spot. If Harry falls in line with Aaron Dobson and Chad Jackson, the Patriots have a big problem on their hands.
Jakobi Meyers: With Meyers, the fear is that the preseason can sometimes be a mirage. He's received glowing reviews in practice as well, but it's an entirely different game in the regular season. Because of his undrafted status, there's the question of whether or not the doubts that kept teams from taking him to show up when the games count for real.
In the end, the Patriots receiver group's production will probably fall somewhere in the middle, whether it's ultimately these players on the 53-man roster or not.
But as there is this positive wave of the unit getting healthy and deeper with the return of Edelman, Gordon, and Thomas, it'd be wise to hold back expectations before seeing the group whittle down, develop and produce on the field. Not only that, but there's a solid chance that Thomas and Gordon are complete non-factors in 2019.
As the Patriots know, everything can change in the blink of an eye.