Malcolm Mitchell will get plenty of chances to impress this preseason
With Patriots training camp thankfully almost upon us, I'll be taking a closer look at some of the more intriguing positional battles on the roster. After taking a look at a deep and unpredictable group of young interior offensive lineman, I'm staying with the offense and checking out the receiver depth chart, where a large group of players could be competing for only one roster spot.
There's obviously no questioning the job security of Edelman, who has emerged as one of the league's top slot receivers and one of Tom Brady's go-to guys. There are, however, questions about Edelman's early season availability, as the receiver is starting camp on the Active/PUP list after undergoing a second surgery on the broken foot that took him out for the second half of last season. While Edelman has looked far from hobbled in recent public sightings, his placement on the PUP list is far from surprising. Foot injuries are notoriously difficult to overcome, as the stress placed on the foot can easily lead to re-injury if the foot isn't given proper time to heal. As a result, I'd expect the Patriots to be extremely cautious with Edelman this summer, with every emphasis placed on getting him 100% for Week One. His availability early in the season could be key for young Jimmy Garoppolo, as his ability to uncover quickly makes any quarterback's life much easier.
Another diminutive but shifty slot receiver, Amendola joins his "Cops" buddy Edelman on the Active/PUP list as camp opens. Amendola is coming off his best season since joining the Patriots as a high profile free agent signing back in 2013, but he underwent offseason surgeries on both his knee and ankle. It's been reported that both injuries are considered "minor" and not long-term concerns, but his health bears monitoring given Amendola's lengthy injury history and borderline reckless style of play. Like Edelman, the team will likely err on the side of caution with Amendola's return, as having him at full health at the season's start would give Garoppolo another reliable weapon who can create yards after the catch.
Hogan will be the top receiver on the depth chart early in camp
One of the Patriots more high profile free agent signings, Hogan's cap hit ($5.5 million) suggests the team thinks he can step into a bigger role than his previous years with the Bills. Famously nicknamed "7/11" by Reggie Bush on Hard Knocks in 2012 for being always open, Hogan has earned his way into the league since being an undrafted free agent back in 2011. A precise route runner who knows how to set up defenders, Hogan's skill set theoretically makes him an excellent fit for the Patriots demanding offense. He's shifty enough to play the slot should either Edelman or Amendola miss significant time, but at 6'1" and 220 pounds, he also has more than enough size to complement those two in an outside role if all are healthy. With Edelman and Amendola sidelined at the moment, Hogan enters camp as the top healthy receiver on the roster and should see plenty of valuable opportunities to gain chemistry with both Brady and Garoppolo.
Mitchell makes the "lock" category due to his status as a fourth round pick, but this camp will be all about development for the rookie. With a ton of veteran targets ahead of him in the pecking order (remember, the Pats will likely run far more two tight end looks with Martellus Bennett in the fold), it would be surprising to see him play a major role as a rookie once the real games start. However, Mitchell certainly has the potential to contribute down the road, and the current injury status of Edelman and Amendola should open up plenty of valuable snaps for the high-upside prospect to develop in the Patriots offense. Early reports from spring camps were positive regarding Mitchell's ability to mentally pick up the Patriots complex offense. That early progress should be put to the test with reps with the 1's while Edelman and Amendola are sidelined, giving the rookie opportunities to develop chemistry with Garoppolo and Brady. On the field, Mitchell possesses an intriguing skill-set that differs from the other proven pass catchers on the roster. He's highly advanced as a route runner for a young player and has a knack for adjusting to the ball in the air and using his long, lanky frame to make tough, contested catches, something that should help him become the outside downfield threat that has been missing from the Patriots offense. He'll get plenty of opportunities both in camp and in the preseason and could earn a supporting role early in the season if one or both of the Edelman/Amendola duo misses time.
With four locks, the remaining receivers on the depth chart are likely competing for at most two roster spots. None of these guys has separated themselves from the group enough to earn the likely safe distinction, as the final spot or two on a depth chart is rarely an easy decision.
On the fringe:
Martin earned a contract extension with his 2015 play
Acquired from the Texans via an early-season trade, Martin had enough good moments during his first season as a Patriot to gain a two year extension through 2017. Despite that, the 2012 fourth round pick will still have to earn a depth role this season amidst a crowded depth chart. The Pats seemed to like Martin's ability to pick up their offense on the fly, as he quickly overtook several receivers with more experience in the offense for snaps upon his Week Two arrival. He also brings good speed to the offense and presents some special teams value due to his experience returning both punts and kicks in Houston. However, he'll be a fall-back option at best on returns with Cyrus Jones in the fold, and while he made some plays last year, he was unable to step up as a reliable every game contributor despite a glaring need for playmakers once the likes of Edelman, Amendola, Dion Lewis and Rob Gronkowski suffered injuries. I'm considering him the early favorite to win one of these depth roles, but he'll still need to outperform the other names on this list to make the roster.
Another former Texan, Washington has defied the odds to last 11 seasons in the league since making the Steelers as an undrafted rookie back in 2005. Whether he can extend his career to a 12th season will depend on whether the 32 year old Washington still has the wheels to take the top off a defense. Speed has always been Washington's biggest asset, as illustrated by his 15.2 career yards per catch average. In addition to providing an outside deep threat for an offense that lacked that element last year, Washington also brings a veteran presence for a position group with several young, developmental talents. His presence and example can only help the kids he's competing with this summer, but he'll have to prove he can still run by people to beat enough of them out to continue his career. So far, betting against him has been unwise, but father time does remain undefeated. Time will tell.
Drops have been an issue for the inconsistent Dobson
Yes, the perennially disappointing Dobson remains on the roster, but he'll need an impressive showing in camp to maintain that status into September. It seems like eons, but it was only two summers ago that Dobson was coming off of the most statistically productive rookie season for a Patriots receiver since Deion Branch and was a prime breakout candidate as the long awaited big bodied outside deep threat the offense lacked. Nagging injuries and poor play have been the story since, as Dobson appears to be close to running out of the extra chances his status as a 2013 second round pick brought him. The big bodied Dobson reportedly impressed in spring work, but Patriots followers have seen that happen before only to be disappointed when the pads come on. He'll have to stay healthy and consistently play up to his talent level to stick this season, and he has yet to do either of those things in his NFL career.
Last summer, Harper became a fun story for Patriots fans as an undrafted rookie who seized every opportunity in the preseason and eventually forced his way into a roster spot. Things are different now, as the rookie botched his one and only opportunity with the big club with a muffed punt that proved critical to Denver's comeback win over the Patriots. Last season is in the past now and the Pats "on to 2016" mentality can only help Harper to overcome that mistake and earn his way back onto the roster after spending the majority of 2015 on the practice squad. His quick feet and route running make his skill-set a fit for the Pats offense, and the chemistry he built last preseason with Jimmy Garoppolo can only help him this summer. Still, a return to the practice squad feels like the most realistic option for him after the Pats added several significant names to the depth chart this offseason.
Lucien emerged as an explosive playmaker last fall
A seventh round pick of the Patriots this spring, Lucien took a very interesting path to the NFL. After redshirting as a freshman, Lucien spent three non-descript seasons at UCLA, tallying just 58 receptions as a Bruin. However, earning his degree enabled him to transfer without sitting out a season, and he took the unusual step of transferring within the Pac-12 to Arizona State. While hamstring issues effected him for part of the season, an explosive three game run to close out last year (26 catches, 534 yards, 5 touchdowns) put him on the radar of NFL scouts. While Lucien lacks blazing straight end speed, he has outstanding hands (just five drops over the past two seasons despite poor QB play), is fearless working over the middle and is a major threat after the catch, which should make him a good fit in the Patriots quick-striking, predominately short passing offense. At 6'2", Lucien is the Patriots second tallest receiver, trailing only Dobson, and he flashed the ability to get vertical and make big plays downfield during his breakout senior season. Both ProFootballFocus and USA Today's DraftWire compared Lucien pre-draft to Minnesota Viking Stefon Diggs, who utilized a similar skillset to emerge as a needed playmaker as a rookie. Lucien still faces long odds to make the big club, but he should get plenty of preseason run and has the talent to impress in his opportunities. His upside makes him an intriguing developmental option for the practice squad even if he's unable to crack the final 53.
An undrafted rookie last year out of Sacramento State, Carter spent training camp last year with the Ravens but was released at final cuts after failing to win a starting role as a return specialist. He then spent most of the season on the Raiders practice squad before being released in December, which allowed the Patriots to scoop him up. At 5'8", Carter is very undersized, but he brings explosive quickness to the table. His ability to chip in on returns if need be is a plus to his case for a roster spot, but the practice squad is likely the best case scenario for Carter.