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State of the New England Patriots Position by Position: Wide Receiver

New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) runs from Indianapolis Colts defensive back Sergio Brown (38) after a catch during the second half of an AFC divisional NFL playoff football game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Stephan Savoia/Associated Press
Randolph CharlotinAnalyst IINovember 21, 2016

Signed: Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater, Mark Harrison, T.J. Moe

Free Agents: Julian Edelman, Austin Collie

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke

For the second year in a row, the New England Patriots begin the offseason with their leading receiver a free agent. Last year Wes Welker reached the open market and now Julian Edelman might hit free agency as well.

After a perfectly timed career year (105 receptions, 1,056 yards, six touchdowns), Edelman is in position to become a very rich man. Following Welker’s success with the Denver Broncos, fewer teams will shy away from Edelman because Welker showed it’s not just the system that made him successful.

And if any team interested in a quality slot receiver needed any more incentive to pursue Edelman, Welker helping the Broncos reach Super Bowl XLVIII is reason enough.

It would seem logical for the Patriots to resign Edelman as the offense struggled for much of the season following the near complete turnover of the receiving corps. Lack of continuity and chemistry really set the offense back. New England wouldn’t dare let Edelman walk, would they?

Actually, yes. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t learn from their mistake.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Plan A for Welker’s replacement, Danny Amendola, remains on the team. While his injury-prone reputation stayed true, Amendola still turned in a decent season (54 receptions, 633 yards, two touchdowns). For the money the Patriots are paying him, he’s the favorite to win the slot role.

But don’t count out last year’s rookies. It’s possible one of them could surprise and take the job.

Based on build, Josh Boyce fits the mold of the slot receiver. A stocky 5’11” 205 pounds, Boyce didn’t show much in his maiden season as he was slow to grasp the playbook. But if he learns the offense for year two, Boyce would add explosiveness to the slot.

An out-of-the-box possibility is Kenbrell Thompkins. It sounds outlandish, but look at how a big slot receiver worked for the Buffalo Bills.

Stevie Johnson is 6’2” 207 pounds. Working primarily out of the slot, Johnson has three 1,000-yard seasons and 26 touchdowns over the past four seasons.

Johnson flourishes because if opponents didn't adjust, Johnson would face the opponent’s third corner. That’s an instant advantage for Buffalo’s best receiver.

Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

Thompkins runs crisp routes with quickness out of his breaks, qualities required for slot receivers. And if he’s lined up across the average slot corner, Thompkins will have a physical advantage over a smaller corner.

If Thompkins does move to the slot, it takes away a good intermediate outside threat that the Patriots will have to replace somehow. Maybe Aaron Dobson can be that and more.

The rookie out of Marshall began emerging in week six and showed signs of becoming New England’s much-needed deep threat. If he can instill fear in opposing defensive backs that don’t want to get beat deep, intermediate routes will open up for Dobson. And if Dobson sucks a defender in, he must tear the top off, like he did to the Pittsburgh Steelers on an 81-yard touchdown reception.

New England shopping for a receiver in free agency for a second straight year is possible, but doesn’t seem likely. Denver Broncos Eric Decker’s name is often brought up since he was drafted by Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin is also attractive because of how he burned the Patriots in the 2012 AFC Championship. If no free agents are added, Mark Harrison or T.J. Moe will get their shots.

But New England doesn’t have a glaring hole for an outside threat. What the Patriots lack is experience. It wouldn’t be shocking if New England stands pat with their receiving corps or signs a veteran reserve like Austin Collie.

Because despite New England’s struggles, Edelman’s production proved, in part, that the Patriots system makes good slot receivers.

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