5 Free-Agent Wide Receivers New England Patriots Should Target This Offseason
The New England Patriots' situation at wide receiver is simple: Julian Edelman is the only 100 percent sure thing for next season.
So, in that sense, their situation is actually quite complicated.
When Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looks at the salary-cap ledger for the 2016 season, one thing is going to stand out: Wide receiver Danny Amendola is taking up more space than fellow receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski. He might also see Brandon LaFell's contract, which stands at a $3.675 million cap hit for 2016, and see an area where the Patriots could create more room.
Of course, there is some reason for trepidation with those moves.
It is exceedingly difficult to learn the wide receiver position in the Patriots offense. It might be unwise to throw away two receivers who have a wealth of experience in the system and with Tom Brady specifically. It might not be the best idea to force Brady to work with a whole new set of weapons—again—this close to the end of his career.
Amendola and LaFell's cap numbers might need to be lowered, but they don't need to be cut. That being said, who knows if they'll be open to ripping up or reworking their old deals.
And if they're not, the Patriots will have some extra cap space to play with and some openings at wide receiver to fill. Here are some of the players they should consider.
At 35 years old, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin isn't nearly the player he was at 25. But in 2015, he showed that he still has something to offer to a team.
Boldin just did what he normally does, lining up all over the field and catching nearly everything thrown his way. According to Pro Football Focus, he caught 69 of the 107 passes (64.5 percent) in his direction for 789 yards (11.4 yards per reception) and four touchdowns, with four drops on the season.
He doesn't have the long speed he once had, and he caught just five passes on 10 targets that were 20 yards or further downfield. But he was also remarkably consistent, as he caught five or more passes in nine of the 14 games he played this year.
Boldin is a sure-handed, physical receiver, and although it was a long time ago, the Patriots have shown interest in him in the past, per Pro Football Talk. He's worth one more look at the end of his career.
If Danny Amendola is running the proverbial "out route," Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu would be a solid choice to replace him. Aside from the Rutgers connection, he seems to be a fit for the Patriots offense.
Throughout his career, Sanu has been versatile, lining up on the outside and in the slot. In 2014, he was balanced between a boundary receiver and slot receiver (59.3 percent of his routes were run from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus) due to the absence of teammate Marvin Jones. In 2015, he was almost exclusively in the slot (87.6 percent of his routes).
Sanu would also give the Patriots another receiver with some size, at 6'2" and 210 pounds. That size allows him to take hits and create yards after the catch. (He averaged 5.9 yards after catch per reception each of the past two years.) He had a bad case of the drops in 2014, with a whopping 15 of them, but he corrected course in 2015 with just one drop (albeit on 51 fewer targets and with 23 fewer receptions).
This one is for all you "deep threat" fans out there who think the Patriots offense would be so much better if only it had a reliable big-bodied receiver who could just run go-routes for 60 minutes.
Rueben Randle was so much more than that with the New York Giants, and he wouldn't have ended up on this list otherwise, because one-dimensional players just don't last in New England (see Randy Moss). Randle ran short, medium and deep routes, but much more of the first two than the last one. That's a product of the West Coast offense run by Giants offensive coordinator (now head coach) Ben McAdoo.
According to Pro Football Focus, Randle was targeted 14 times on passes that traveled 20 yards or further downfield, and he came down with nine of those 14 targets. So the numbers don't exactly support Randle as a deep threat in the pure sense, but at 6'2" and 208 pounds, he has the size to body up on an opposing receiver in a one-on-one matchup and win jump balls with his 31-inch vertical.
He's not quite as quick as the Patriots prefer their receivers to be (6.99-second three-cone drill), but he has the skill set to fill a void in their offense. Unfortunately, due to how his particular skills are valued, he might fall outside the Patriots' price range.
In the event that the Patriots move on from Brandon LaFell, one of the most reasonable replacements might be Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones.
The 6'2", 198-pound veteran has the size and speed to line up on the boundary and win one-on-one matchups but also the toughness and quickness to run routes over the middle of the field and run with the ball in his hands. Most importantly for the Patriots, he has the football intelligence and awareness to find soft spots in coverage and run his routes in specific ways to beat specific kinds of coverage.
Not to mention his hands would be a massive upgrade, as Jones possesses some of the best hands in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, he has consistently ranked in the top 20 in the league in drop rate (percent of catchable passes that were dropped).
Bill Belichick has always said that a receiver has two jobs: get open and catch the ball. Jones has proved to be effective in those two areas throughout his career, and his skill set would be valuable to the Patriots, whether they hang onto LaFell for another year or not.
Rishard Matthews' career with the Miami Dolphins has been a roller coaster, but he hit a high point in 2015.
The former Nevada wide receiver fell in and out of favor with the Dolphins' (former) coaching staff and was requesting his release from the team as recently as April 2015. But he surpassed Kenny Stills, who was acquired via trade, and with rookie first-round pick DeVante Parker shelved for the first half of the season, Matthews set career marks with 43 receptions for 662 yards and four touchdowns.
Matthews has the versatility to line up all over the field, primarily as either a Z or slot receiver, which are the positions played by Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, respectively. Matthews might have to move to the slot on a full-time basis, after running just 19.4 percent of his routes from the slot in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus.
His number was called, and his 2015 performance supported that decision, virtually guaranteeing him a strong market as a free agent.