NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
As organized team activities opened up on Tuesday, May 27, the New England Patriots filled the 90-man roster to maximum capacity by signing two wide receivers. In doing so, one of the positions which grew scarce with attrition and inexperience last season now stands among the squad’s deepest in volume.
It stands at 13.
In a numbers game, though, less than half of that baker’s dozen will ultimately make the 53-man roster. And if the past serves as an indicator of the future, the process will remain a fluid one until then.
That was illustrated last June, as the Patriots stocked OTAs with 10 wideouts. The pool included three incumbents – who combined 21 receptions for the year prior – along with four veteran signings, two rookie draft picks and two undrafted rookies.
The average age of the nucleus was 25 years old.
But by the time OTAs turned into training camp and the preseason, the landscape shifted. Rookie Mark Harrison was never activated from the non-football injury list, incumbent Kamar Aiken and veterans Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins were let go. Several more joined only to meet the same fate.
The fate of New England’s 2014 collection is not yet known. Even so, there are some elements that are.
One of the lone certainties is its youth. The average age is 24, and no player is older than 28.
Age can be deceiving, however, as eight of whom were members of the Patriots in some capacity last season. Of that group, five netted a tally of 237 receptions. And among the rest, one went to a Pro Bowl for special teams, and two others went under the first-year player category.
Yet while the Patriots have five more receivers and 216 more receptions returning than in June of 2013, there are some fresh faces at Gillette Stadium as well. One of them was signed via unrestricted free agency, three signed as undrafted rookies, and one landed as a draft choice.
In the end, though, each player will have to stand apart to earn their place. That’s not a new revelation for most of them.
Only six wideouts on New England’s roster entered the league as draft picks, and the Patriots war room had its hand in drafting five of them. As for the seven others, they entered as free agents.
But regardless of age or arrival in Foxborough, every receiver carries their own traits. Some have stood out in the crowd for their routes; others have stood out for their speed or hands.
Some have stood out just by standing. And although size isn’t a barometer of success, it can be a barometer of what an organization is looking for in terms of utilization.
Last season, the Patriots were forced to move inside receivers outside when injuries struck. The aftereffects shortened the field and limited the passing windows down in the red zone. So, as the team heads into the summer of 2014, the semblance of “X” and “Z” receivers remains an area to monitor.
At this juncture, four Patriots receivers measure in over 6’1”, seven others measure in between 6’0” and 5’10”, and two others are in the books at 5’9” or under. In contrast with the assembly showcased some 365 days ago, the number of receivers over 6’1” remains unchanged, while the number of receivers 6’0” or under has increased by two.
In essence, as far as height is concerned, there haven’t been any drastic alterations. Yet with presumable growth in both development and depth, perhaps the manner in which the receivers can disperse has.
But it all remains to be seen. OTAs will give way to mandatory minicamp, and then Patriots will head off on vacation June 19. In all reality, the waters will stay murky until training camp embarks in late July.
Until then, here is a closer look at each target within the numbers.
Julian Edelman – 5’10″, 198 Pounds, Age 28, Sixth Year, Kent State
This offseason, Julian Edelman re-signed with the team that took a chance on him in the seventh round of the 2009 draft. And after the QB-turned-WR landed 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns last year, four years and $17 million proved to be a worthwhile investment for the Patriots organization. Edelman caught 37 passes as a rookie, but connected for just 32 over his next three NFL seasons combined. But with a healthy 16-game season under his belt, Edelman has validated his importance on offense as an inside-out receiver, and on special teams as an elusive punt returner.
Aaron Dobson – 6’3″, 200 Pounds, Age 22, Second Year, Marshall
A second-round draft choice via Marshall in 2013, Aaron Dobson’s rookie year began with fourth-quarter snaps in the preseason. But by Week 3 of the regular season, he was New England’s starting “X” receiver. Dobson went on to start nine of the 12 contests he played in, totaling 37 receptions for 519 yards and four touchdowns. And by year’s end, he had clinched the most receiving yards and touchdowns for a Patriots rookie receiver in the era of quarterback Tom Brady. Although he was wasn’t the same after suffering a stress fracture left foot in Week 12, and although it escalated into offseason surgery, he’s in position to build on a promising year one.
Danny Amendola – 5’11”, 195 Pounds, Age 28, Sixth Year, Texas Tech
After signing a five-year, $28 million deal in March of 2013, Danny Amendola went on to catch 54 passes for 633 yards and two touchdowns over 12 games. He coped with injury and missed the second, third, fourth and seventh games of the regular season, but he also broke out with two 10-catch performances and three 100-yard performances from primarily the slot. Over his previous five years, he made Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad as an undrafted rookie out of Texas Tech, before later working onto the St. Louis Rams as a returner and receiver, attaining 196 receptions for 1,726 yards and seven scores there.
Brandon LaFell – 6’2”, 210 Pounds, Age 27, Fifth Year, LSU
A third-round out of LSU back in 2010, LaFell signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Patriots this March. Over his first four NFL seasons with the Carolina Panthers, the long possession receiver was used as both a “Z” and a slot receiver, creating a size mismatch over the middle and deep outside on corner routes. He has caught 167 passes for 2,385 yards and 13 touchdowns since entering the league, including a 49-catch, 627-yard, five-touchdown 2013.
Kenbrell Thompkins – 6’1”, 195 Pounds, Age 25, Second Year, Cincinnati
Kenbrell Thompkins traveled a long road before joining New England as an undrafted rookie in 2013. But as early as preseason opener, the University of Cincinnati receiver by way of El Camino College emerged as an appealing target for Brady. He made the 53-man roster and played in 12 regular-season games as a split end and flanker, totaling 32 catches for 466 yards and four touchdowns – including the game-winner against the New Orleans Saints in Week 6.
Josh Boyce – 5’11”, 205 Pounds, Age 23, Second Year, Texas Christian
After 161 catches, 2,535 receiving yards and a TCU record 22 touchdowns, Josh Boyce was drafted by New England in the fourth round of 2013. As a rookie, he played in eight games and started three before his season concluded on injured reserve in January. He caught nine passes for 121 yards, and was deployed as an “X”, a “Z” and a slot receiver when the position thinned. And on special teams, he returned nine kicks for 214 yards. His best game came versus the Cleveland Browns in Week 14, when he played 72 snaps, drew two pass interference penalties, and was able to reel in three passes for 49 yards – 38 after the catch.
Matthew Slater – 6’0”, 210 Pounds, Age 28, Seventh Year, UCLA
Since he was taken in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater has carved his own niche. Though he has only one reception for 46 yards to show for it, Matthew Slater also has three Pro Bowls for his invaluable efforts on special teams. A three-time team captain, Slater has 88 tackles and a forced fumble on his NFL resume. He’s served as a gunner, a safety and a kick returner. And in 2013, he served as a blocking specialist at wideout, logging 16 of his 20 offensive snaps during run plays, per Pro Football Focus.
Jeremy Gallon – 5’8”, 184 Pounds, Age 24, Rookie, Michigan
Measured in as 5’7” at the NFL Scouting Combine but listed as 5’8” on the Patriots official website, Jeremy Gallon is the smallest receiver drafted by New England in the Bill Belichick era. Even with that natural disadvantage, the seventh-rounder proved he could play big during his tenure with the Michigan Wolverines. Over his final four seasons in Ann Arbor, Gallon caught 173 passes for 2,704 yards and 17 touchdowns, emerging for 89 receptions, 1,373 yards and nine TDs as a redshirt senior in 2013. Playing both outside and in the slot, Gallon set a Big Ten single-game record with 369 receiving yards against Indiana on Oct. 19. The former high school running back also spelled as a returner and rusher in college.
Reggie Dunn – 5’9”, 178 Pounds, Age 25, First-Year Player, Utah
After stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers, the Cleveland Browns and the Miami Dolphins, Reggie Dunn joined New England’s practice squad during last January’s playoff run. A product of Compton Community College and later the University of Utah, Dunn’s implementation has varied between receiver, halfback and returner. Over his three seasons with the Utes, he secured 31 passes for 355 yards and one touchdown, and 40 rushing attempts for 330 yards and two touchdowns. Nonetheless, Dunn’s spark has been special teams, as he ran four kick returns back for touchdowns in 2012 – an NCAA record – and totaled five over his FBS career. At his pro day leading up to the 2013 NFL draft, he ran a 4.24 40-yard dash but went unselected.
Mark Harrison – 6’3”, 230 Pounds, Age 23, First-Year Player, Rutgers
After a fracture to his fifth metatarsal bone kept the aforementioned Harrison from being drafted in April of 2013, the Rutgers Scarlet Knight joined the Patriots as a free agent. But after being placed on the reserve/NFI list that spring, Harrison never was cleared to practice in full. And consequently, his first year with New England ended in medical “redshirt.” Harrison impressed with a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, a 6.99-second three-cone, a 38.5-inch vertical leap and a 10’9” broad jump in Indianapolis, and his potential remains a point of intrigue despite health concerns. He caught 107 passes for 1,769 yards and 18 touchdowns at Rutgers between 2009 and 2012.
Derrick Johnson – 5’11”, 190 Pounds, Age 22, Rookie, Maine
Derrick Johnson signed a contract with the Patriots after being invited to tryout at the team’s rookie minicamp. The undrafted free agent out of Maine earned his first start in 2010; and over his 37 career games, he totaled 116 receptions for 1,165 yards and four touchdowns. The redshirt senior also recorded 11 rushes for 47 yards, 13 kick returns for 247 yards during his time with the Black Bears, and has experience as a special-teamer. At his May pro day in Orono, Johnson ran a 4.47-second 40-time and a 6.60-second three-cone time, but also registered a 33-inch vertical leap and 10’2” broad jump.
Wilson Van Hooser – 6’0”, 197 Pounds, Age 23, Rookie, Troy
Wilson Van Hooser signed with the Patriots after four seasons at Tulane and a redshirt senior campaign at Troy in 2013. As a pass-catcher, Van Hooser accumulated 68 collegiate receptions for 993 yards and 10 touchdowns, including a 36-catch, 487-yard, four-touchdown redshirt sophomore year with the Green Wave. As a return man, he also tacked on six career punt returns for 35 yards and 20 career kick returns for 319 yards. At his pro day in March, Van Hooser ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash and a 6.96-second three-cone drill, also posting 39-inch vertical leap and 10’6” broad jump.
Reese Wiggins – 5’11”, 193 Pounds, Age 23, Rookie, East Carolina
Reese Wiggins signed with New England out of East Carolina, where he played with 6’8” tight end Justin Jones – a fellow Patriots undrafted signee. Used predominantly as an outside receiver, Wiggins amassed 80 catches for 1,012 yards and eight scores over his final three seasons with the Pirates. And as fifth-year senior in 2013, he earned All-Conference USA Honorable Mention after tallying 26 receptions for 372 yards and four touchdowns. At the Detroit Regional Scouting Combine in March, Wiggins clocked a 4.37-second 40-time, a 6.89-second three-cone, 40-inch vertical leap and a 10’1” broad jump.
Tags: Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, Derrick Johnson, Jeremy Gallon, Josh Boyce, Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, Mark Harrison, Matthew Slater, Reese Wiggins, Reggie Dunn, Wilson Van Hooser