By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It didn’t take Mel Kiper Jr. to be able to see that the Patriots entered this offseason with a bit of a void at the receiver position. Even Mel Kiper III, or even Mel Kiper IV could have seen that.
And because of that lack of bodies on the depth chart, expectations were moderate to high that the Patriots might acquire a high-talent, big name at the receiver position.
Through the first week of free agency, that has … not been the case.
The Patriots tried and failed to sign Cole Beasley, Adam Humphries and Golden Tate.
Instead, they’ve acquired, Bruce Ellington, Maurice Harris, and Phillip Dorsett.
Not exactly the “splash” that some people were expecting.
The reasons for that are twofold. First, the Patriots don’t really have the cap space to pay the best available receivers more than other teams. While it’s been reported that the Patriots upped their offer to Humphries in an attempt to get him to go back on his handshake agreement with the Titans, there’s still no getting around the fact that the Patriots aren’t exactly in position to offer up big money to anyone.
Their best chance in landing the aforementioned trio of top available receivers rested in the fact that they were the Patriots and other teams were not. Clearly, that pitch didn’t land.
But the second reason has nothing to do with money and is more aligned with the Patriots likely subscribing to a philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Which is to say that they pulled it off last year and ended up winning a Super Bowl.
Though it feels like decades ago, last summer the Patriots headed into training camp with a receiving depth chart that looked like this:
And after releasing Matthews due to injury during camp, the Patriots added veteran receiver Eric Decker.
As we now know, only four of those receivers made the roster, and the most important one ended up getting suspended for the first four games of the season.
Not ideal, really.
But the Patriots, as they tend to do, made it work.
Dorsett stepped up in a big way in those first four weeks, as the Patriots managed to tread water and go 2-2. The team then managed to acquire Josh Gordon from Cleveland, and combined with Edelman’s return to the field, Tom Brady’s offense managed to get by. It wasn’t perfect, as evidenced by the 11-5 record, but the Patriots, with their 41-year-old quarterback, their lack of explosive receivers, and their somewhat-muted Rob Gronkowski? They managed to to put together a decent little passing attack.
PATRIOTS’ 2018 RANKINGS
Total Passing Yards: 8th
Passing TDs: Tied-11th
INTs: Tied-10th fewest
Passer Rating: 11th
Sacks Allowed: 3rd-fewest
Yards Per Attempt: 10th
Net Yards Per Attempt: 6th
Clearly, the passing game was far from explosive. But it was a top-10 unit. That, combined with a top-five rushing attack and a competent defense, was enough for the Patriots to win the division and earn a first-round playoff bye.
And once those playoffs began, the Patriots’ passing offense clicked just fine. Brady threw for 343 yards and a touchdown at home against the Chargers, and he threw for 348 yards and a touchdown in Kansas City. Though the passing offense didn’t function with perfect excellence in Super Bowl LIII vs. the Rams, the MVP of the game was of course Edelman, for his 10-catch, 141-yard performance in a game that oddly ended up being more about time of possession and field position than scoring points.
Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio and the Patriots’ brain trust know that such a circumstance is unique, that winning despite a shaky depth chart at receiver is not necessarily the blue print for success in the NFL.
At the same time, when something works, there’s not always a tremendous impetus to change it significantly. If going into last year’s training camp with a bunch of low-cost question marks at the receiver position ended with a parade through the streets of Boston, is there really going to be a huge push to do things differently this time around?
Again, that’s not to say that the Patriots wouldn’t have liked Tate, or Beasley, or Humphries. They clearly wanted those players, but they wanted them at their price. In the case of Tate (four years, $37.5 million, $23 million guaranteed) and Beasley (four years, $29 million, $10.7 million guaranteed), the Patriots’ price likely wasn’t in the ballpark of those contracts offered by two teams that went a combined 11-21 last season.
So, instead, it’s Maurice Harris and Bruce Ellington, who have a combined 119 receptions, 1,201 receiving yards and six touchdowns in the seven NFL seasons between them. Tate had 99 receptions, 1,331 yards and four touchdowns in the 2014 season.
Clearly, it’s not perfect, and nobody in New England is going to get overly excited about the picture of the Patriots’ receiver depth chart at this point in time. But a very similar approach proved to be not catastrophic a year ago, and the Patriots appear content to give it another go in 2019.