As a general offseason rule, no one should ever worry about the Patriots. No matter which players the team ships off—Bill Belichick’s knack for unloading guys a year before they decline is infamous—or how much turnover the roster sees, New England seems to have a perennial standing date for the AFC championship game in Foxborough. Don’t overthink it. These are the Patriots.
That logic still holds true Thursday, as Adam Schefter and Field Yates reported that Patriots receiver Julian Edelman is facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Edelman is appealing the ruling, though ESPN reports that such appeals are “difficult” to win.
The 32-year old wideout missed the entire 2017 season due to an ACL tear, but is penciled in to return as the team’s no. 1 option on the outside in 2018. In his last season of action, Edelman accounted for 1,106 yards and three touchdowns. His role is especially crucial given the offseason departures of Brandin Cooks (traded) and Danny Amendola (free agency). Those two together accounted for 1,741 receiving yards in 2017, which was 73 percent of the yards that went to Patriots receivers. For the first four games of the season, the team could now be looking at Chris Hogan to be the team’s no. 1 wideout. The no. 2 wideout during that stretch will be … [squints at depth chart] ... uh … Jordan Matthews?
This projects to be one of the thinnest pure receiver corps in the league for the first four weeks, but again: These are the Patriots. New England is built to rely on its wideouts as little as possible.
The Patriots’ actual no. 1 pass catcher during that stretch won’t be Hogan or Matthews, and it probably wouldn’t even be Edelman if he were playing. Though not a wideout, Rob Gronkowski is one of the 10 best pass catchers in football when healthy, and he was essential to the team’s offensive success last season. He led the squad in receiving yards (1,084) and touchdowns (8) and reported for OTAs this week despite cryptically hinting at retirement for much of the offseason. He’s Brady’s go-to guy on the field. (By the way, I’ve argued that Rob Gronkowski is disproportionately important in fantasy football before. He might be even more valuable this year. If you think he’ll play a full season, you can’t draft him too early.)
New England also deploys its running backs in the passing game with great effectiveness, with James White, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis combining for 897 receiving yards last year. Lewis left this offseason, but rookie Sony Michel has the skill set to catch passes, too, with 64 catches and 621 yards through the air in his Georgia career.
The team’s first four games are against the Texans, Jaguars, Lions, and Dolphins. That’s a relatively tough lineup, and Edelman will certainly be missed during that game in Jacksonville. When he went down last offseason, the Pats still had Gronk, their running backs, Cooks, Amendola, and Hogan to rely on. That group of pass catchers is facing a downgrade this season with or without Edelman, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the offense will adjust. But as long as Gronkowski is upright, Tom Brady is under center, and Belichick is on the sideline, it will always be too early to hit the panic button.