Tom Brady kept the Patriots’ passing game rolling without a healthy Jullian Edelman for an entire season. They will easily survive not having a suspended Edelman for four games — even with a lot of new faces in New England.
Last year, the Patriots had a much more established backup plan as they could simply turn to Danny Amendola to be their mismatch-creating quick wide receiver and Brady’s go-to guy in the slot. They also had a shiny new No. 1 big-play target in Brandin Cooks.
This offseason, they let Amendola leave in free agency to the rival Dolphins and surprisingly traded Cooks to the Rams, 13 months after trading for him. They also saw running back Dion Lewis cash in with the Titans after his breakout rushing season.
But because this is the Patriots, they are always prepared, considering contigencies and finding new guys to “do their job” in Josh McDaniels’ offense.
There’s a direct replacement for Lewis in rookie first-round draft pick Sony Michel. And while the answers to replace Cooks and now Edelman aren’t so linear, expect them to be clear soon.
Parting ways with Amendola at 32 and knowing Edelman is also 32 and coming off a torn ACL, the Patriots addressed the slot position twice by signing Jordan Matthews and drafing Braxton Berrios in the sixth round.
There’s no shortage of bodies at wideout as the team extended its flyer on Kenny Britt and held on to Phillip Dorsett. Both were necessary because of the uncertanty tied to the knee injury of Malcolm Mitchell. And although the Patriots traded for Cordarrelle Patterson primarily to replace Lewis in the return game, he still can provide offensive pop when needed.
For most teams, looking at all the ifs and buts at wide receiver beyond Edelman and Chris Hogan at wide receiver would be a grim outlook for making plays downfield. But this is the Patriots, who still have elite tight end Rob Gronkowski and two natural receiving backs with Michel joining the incumbent James White.
Brady’s chemistry with and trust in Edelman on the Patriots’ patented pivot routes cannot be replaced, but the production can be. The Patriots will adjust to whom and where they throw to keep doing damage on the short-to-intermediate routes.
Matthews is very intriguing because unlike Edelman, Amendola and Wes Welker, he’s a “big slot” at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds giving him an advantage against smaller nickel backs. Although he had some issues with his hands early in his career in Philadelphia, he thrived working the middle of the field. Since then, however, because of his size and because of Buffalo’s dearth of receiving talent, he was forced into a uncomfortable outside role.
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Matthews is only 25 and has a golden chance to establish himself as the new slot fixture in New England. Just as Hogan has the speed and vertical skills to step more into Cooks’ role, Matthews has the natural inside route-running ability to keep Brady from missing anything.
The Patriots are then essentially down to finding someone to replace what Hogan was last year, more of a versatile possession type with a knack for the red zone. If Mitchell was fully healthy, the Patriots would be in business. A committee of Dorsett and Britt is a little more challenging, but in that case, Hogan’s outside versatility can complement Dorsett’s speed and Britt’s size however needed.
That leaves Berrios — an Amendola clone — who will likely slide in as the backup slot behind Matthews who, for a relatively young player, has already been seasoned in what New England will now need from him.
The Patriots won’t be looking for new tricks to survive a month of no Edelman. They can simply reach back into their bag of old ones and find a replacement knowing he will return to make them all the more dangerous with Brady.