If we learned one thing about the New England Patriots in 2015, it's how devastating injuries can be to a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
If we learned a second thing, though, it was how important Julian Edelman is to the success of the Patriots passing game. His ability to get open quickly, to run with the ball in his hands and—most importantly—to be where Tom Brady expects him to be are the traits that make him an irreplaceable component in the Patriots offense.
It's a double-edged sword: the Patriots should obviously be thrilled to have a receiver with Edelman's skill level and skill set, but he's also dealt with injuries in three of the past four years. The depth behind Edelman needs to be as stable as a concrete slab.
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Unfortunately, things could shake up dramatically on the Patriots depth chart at wide receiver. Brandon LaFell ($3,675,000 cap hit) and Danny Amendola ($6,804,166 cap hit) are scheduled to count significant sums against the salary cap, according to Spotrac, but while LaFell is coming off one of his worst seasons in the NFL, Amendola is coming off one of his best.
That being said, the Patriots will need to do something about both contracts—whether it's restructure them to make more cap space and keep the player in the fold, or release the player into the wild of the NFL free-agent market. Amendola has been valuable, but he's currently set to make more than Edelman. Given the fact that LaFell had lost his place in the starting lineup, it's not hard to see why he would need to restructure his deal.
Most notable change on WR depth chart is Brandon LaFell slipping to No. 4 behind Keshawn Martin and Danny Amendola.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 24, 2016
Feasibly, the Patriots could be headed to a similar situation to the one they were in during the 2013 offseason, when they lost several of their top pass-catchers at once.
Of course, their failure to rebuild that depth at the time is what led to the situation they're currently in. Wide receiver Aaron Dobson was plagued by injuries and could never get in rhythm; Kenbrell Thompkins was a flash in the pan; Josh Boyce never panned out at all.
The Patriots might need to take a similar all-hands-on-deck approach to the wide receiver position in 2016 as they took in 2015, but they'll have to do it without a first-round pick and without much cap space at the moment.
Of course, the potential moves with Amendola and LaFell's contracts could free up some space, but the Patriots will probably do as they usually do: invest in a more economic contract on a receiver who might not have realized his full potential yet.
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Matthews might be the best fit of them all, but his contract might also be out of the Patriots' range. He posted career highs with 43 receptions, 662 yards and four touchdowns in 2015, his first season as a starter in the Dolphins offense. Throughout his career, he has shown an ability to both line up on the boundary and in the slot, running routes over the middle of the field on short routes and on the outside on long plays.
He also averaged career highs in yards per reception (15.4) and yards after catch per reception (5.7), and didn't drop a single pass in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus.
Jones would make a great replacement for LaFell; he has better hands (eight drops in three years) and brings the same skill level of route running and run-after-catch to the table. Sanu, on the other hand, would be a replacement option in the slot for Amendola; Sanu was one of just nine receivers to run a higher percentage of his routes from the slot than Amendola.
But before any of those out-of-house considerations can be made, the Patriots must first sort out their in-house situation at wide receiver. After all, if history has taught us one thing, it's that the Lord of the Rings meme applies to playing receiver for the Patriots: one does not simply come to New England and immediately make an impact.
Evaluating the fit of these players has proved difficult for the Patriots in the past, and their ability to make the right decisions, both internally and externally, will shape the offense for years to come.