Through the early stage of the 2019 NFL preseason, the Patriots’ receiving corps was in tatters. Julian Edelman had been held off the field thanks to a broken thumb. Demaryius Thomas wasn’t yet able to play after suffering a torn Achilles’ tendon the year before. First round draft pick N’Keal Harry was sent home from practice to rehab a hamstring injury suffered in the team’s exhibition opener against Detroit. Rob Gronkowski remained retired.

This all left an unlikely but still possible situation Tom Brady’s top three targets for his 2019 regular season debut would be a rusty Edelman, undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers, and either Phillip Dorsett or Maurice Harris.

And then, in an unfamiliar narrative for New England, the NFL’s front office delivered some good news. Josh Gordon was coming back.

Gordon, a former All-Pro wide receiver, provided a shot in the arm for a depleted Patriots’ receiving corps after being traded from Cleveland in 2018. But a big part of why he was available for a swap of Day 3 draft picks was the same reason he failed to finish out last year’s season; a checkered history with the league’s substance abuse policy. Gordon had played in just 10 games from 2014 to 2017 while working his way through NFL discipline. His first season in Foxborough ended after only 11 games thanks to an indefinite suspension after violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement.

Commissioner Roger Goodell ended that suspension Friday, lifting the ban in time for Gordon to rejoin his teammates before their third preseason game of the summer. That means the speedy wideout will have approximately three weeks to get back to regular season shape before an opening week showdown with the Steelers on Sunday Night Football.

That news came just in time for Brady and the Pats.

Gordon immediately revitalizes a position of weakness for New England

Gordon’s presence, even when he’s not targeted, is a major boon for the Patriots. His still-potent straight line speed gives Bill Belichick a unique chess piece to move across his offensive formation. A still-adjusting Gordon only caught 40 passes in his 11 games with New England last season, but he made those receptions count; his 18 yards per catch were second best in the league.

More importantly, a bonafide burner like Gordon unclogs the middle of the field for a Patriot offense that thrives when it can find space to throw near the hashmarks. Here’s how Josh McDaniels’ aerial attack looked with and without its top deep threat on the field last fall:

The Patriots’ passing game with/without Josh Gordon in 2018

Patriots passing offense Yards/game Yards/catch Catch rate QB rating
Patriots passing offense Yards/game Yards/catch Catch rate QB rating
With Gordon (11 games) 303.2 12.2 66.30% 98.5
Without Gordon (5 games) 204 10 64.30% 95.5

Gordon was responsible for adding much of that offensive punch, but he was a rising tide that lifted the rest of the Pats’ receiving corps as well. Edelman saw his receiving output drop from 6.3 catches per game with Gordon in the lineup to 5.5 without him — though an early-season PED suspension reduced his non-Gordon output to only Weeks 16 and 17. Rob Gronkowski averaged four catches and 14.7 yards per reception with Gordon stretching the field and three catches and 14.2 yards per reception when he wasn’t active. While each player saw his catch rate remain roughly the same, it’s clear Brady and the Patriots in general were more comfortable passing the ball when Gordon was on the field.

Belichick knows just how useful Gordon is as a decoy, too. He inserted his freshly emancipated prize into the starting lineup in Week 4, just days after he’d been traded east. He made this decision even though Gordon was still learning the team’s notoriously dense playbook and only earned two targets (both caught) in his debut. Even so, the result was 60 more yards of total offense than the Pats’ previous season high and 154 more passing yards than the game prior — a 26-10 defeat to the Lions.

Where does Gordon fit in the Patriots’ 2019 offense?

The short answer? In the starting lineup. New England has a pair of Super Bowl heroes on which it can rely in the passing game thanks to Edelman and James White, but limited experience behind them. Gronkowski’s retirement took away a valuable security blanket and, more importantly, a player Brady could trust to beat his coverage when a blitz threw his pocket into turmoil. That’s the kind of presence Gordon brings.

The longer answer sees him serving as a dynamic sideline threat who not only provides game-breaking speed, but also allows a team stocked with young wideouts to thrive. The wideout’s biggest impact may be on the young wideout duo of N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers. The former is the first wide receiver on whom Bill Belichick has ever deigned to spend a first round pick. The latter is a converted college quarterback who turned into NC State’s top wideout in 2018 but failed to earn a spot in the 2019 Draft.

Though they’ve taken disparate paths to Foxborough, each will have the chance to prove himself in the lineup. Harry is a refined route runner and yards-after-catch machine who also has the physicality to rip down 50/50 balls at their highest point.

Meyers lacks Harry’s speed and size, but he’s made plays at seemingly every opportunity after joining the Patriots in training camp. He’s got exceptional hands, the vision to exploit holes in coverage, and is capable of working from the slot and along the sideline. He creates separation at the line despite sub-standard speed and spotting the ball well downfield. He also proved himself a valuable red zone threat in New England’s preseason opener with a pair of touchdown receptions.

Both have been impressive. Both are raw. Asking them to bolster a lineup headed by Edelman and Phillip Dorsett would have been a big ask. Throwing Gordon into the mix softens the learning curve by not only creating a more conducive passing environment, but making sure safeties have to look twice Gordon’s way before doubling down on whomever emerges as Brady’s favorite rookie.

Suddenly, the Patriots’ WR depth chart is headed by a former All-Pro (Gordon) and a former Pro Bowler (Edelman), with two former first round picks (Harry, Dorsett) behind them and a heady lottery ticket of an undrafted free agent (Meyers) lurking in the shadows. Useful veterans Dontrelle Inman and Maurice Harris, along with 2018 late-round pick Braxton Berrios, are also battling for spots.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty in that mix between Gordon’s ability to stay on the field, Edelman hitting his mid-30s, and the growth of the club’s young wideouts. Still, Brady and Belichick have to feel a lot better about their passing offense with another potential 1,000-yard receiver in the mix. Gordon brings tremendous value to New England’s passing game as a potential target, but 2018 proved he can be equally useful as the decoy who allows his teammates to thrive away from opponent’s focus.

Getting him back on the roster is a major improvement for the Patriots. Now they just need to figure out what to do with their tight end rotation.

Source link