In the second part of the “Beyond 2016” series, I will take a look now at the Patriots wide receiver depth for how it could look in 2017. While the group may look thin on the surface, a lot of production has come out of it and has been one of the most productive units for the team this season. Between the contributions of new wide-out/deep threat Chris Hogan to the usual reliability of Julian Edelman and emergence of rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, the future is bright for the Patriots at the position. Unfortunately, beyond those three, the situation becomes much murkier.
Besides new acquisition Michael Floyd (who is in the last year of his rookie contract), the Patriots do not actually have any wide receivers that will be free agents after the season. Edelman and Danny Amendola are signed until 2018 while Hogan is signed until 2019 and Mitchell until 2020. Unfortunately for Amendola, he has been forced to re-negotiate his contract in each of the past two seasons and may be forced to again this off-season, or be outright released. He is set to count for nearly $8 million dollars in cap space in 2017 between his base salary, prorated signing bonus and roster bonus. Considering he is 31 years old, has seen his role reduced because of Mitchell and Hogan’s contributions and now another injury that will cause him to miss multiple games, Amendola doesn’t appear to be worth his cap hit.
While Matthew Slater is listed as a wide receiver, for those asking, he barely plays on offense as he is the special teams captain. So beyond Edelman, Hogan and Mitchell, the team may not have any wide receivers signed come free agency/NFL Draft time if they choose to release Amendola. The Patriots recently acquired Floyd from the Cardinals through waivers, but he is on the last year of his rookie deal and will be an undrafted free agent following the 2016 season. Considering his value is arguably at an all-time low considering his recent DUI arrest (that could result in punishment from the league) and his drop-off in play this season, Floyd might be inclined to sign a one-year “prove it” deal in the off-season. Who he signs it with could be anyone at this stage, including the Patriots. However, New England would provide Floyd with being on a constant play-off contender and having one of the best quarterbacks of all time, Tom Brady, throwing to him as well.
But considering he hasn’t suited up for the team yet, it is hard to assume whether the team would even be interested in him beyond 2016 and also if he is even a fit for the team considering the notorious play-book/offense wide receivers have to learn (just as Reggie Wayne and Nate Washington). Luckily for the Patriots, they are projected to have nearly $60 million dollars in cap space, according to Miguel Benzan (also known as @PatsCap on Twitter). That means that even after signing other important free agents such as Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Martellus Bennett and Logan Ryan to name a few (potentially), the Patriots could still have cap space to address their depth at some positions. One such position could be wide receiver.
Looking at the free agent market, it certainly has some wide receivers that could drastically make the Patriots wide receiver core even stronger. Top free agents such as Alshon Jeffery would likely be out of New England’s price range, along with the team not necessarily needing a number one wide receiver. But unrestricted free agents such as Pierre Garcon, Kenny Britt, Markus Wheaton and Kenny Stills could certainly be solid mid-tier additions. Britt and Stills both function as more intermediate to deep play-makers while Garcon and Wheaton likely would be more short/slot to intermediate wide outs. The market doesn’t necessarily have many “top-end” options, but luckily for the Patriots, they don’t need one of those necessarily.
Looking at the NFL Draft, it is certainly not lacking in options. There are several players who are first round talents that may be too rich for the Patriots blood while they could go after someone late on day two/early day three, like they did with Mitchell last year (fourth round). One thing that sticks out is the Patriots don’t necessarily have a lot of size at the position besides Hogan (6’1″). Mitchell is 5’11” and Edelman is 5’10”. Perhaps looking at larger players who could have an advantage in the red-zone/contested balls could be just what the team needs. Taller wide receivers who are projected to be available in the third to fifth round of the draft (per CBS Sports) include Malachi Dupre (6’2″, LSU), Cooper Kupp (6’2″, Eastern Washington), Jehu Chesson (6’2″, Michigan) and Damore’ea Stringfellow (6’2″, Ole Miss). Most of these players with the exception of Kupp, are projected to be picked potentially beyond the third round and into day three.
One name that sticks out though is Kupp, who has been stat machine while at Eastern Washington. He has three straight seasons of 100+ receptions along with over 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns in each of his four seasons. In his 41 games, he has amassed 418 receptions, 6,284 yards and 71 touchdowns. That equals out to 10.19 receptions, 152.27 yards and 1.73 touchdowns per GAME. He has been heavily relied on as the team’s number one wide receiver and is capable of handling a work-load while being able to function all over the field. He is considered a second-to-third round draft prospect, according to CBS. Kupp could function in multiple roles for Belichick and be used all over the field as well.
Overall, the Patriots are in a very good spot going into 2017 at the wide receiver position. We are seeing great production out of Hogan, Mitchell and Edelman right now and it would not be surprising to see them be three of the main play-makers for the Patriots offense beyond this season. There are plenty of #4/#5 options in free agency and developmental players in the NFL Draft that the Patriots can take a chance on and be able to bring them along slowly for the future. Expect to see wide receiver be one of the Patriots strong position groups going into the off-season and into 2017, which is a far cry from how it was a year ago.