The Patriots’ trade for receiver Josh Gordon was met with a decidedly mixed reaction. For some, the move conjured visions of a Randy Moss–like renaissance for the Pats offense and a chance for the former Brown to return to glory as one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league. For others … uh, not so much …
Ugh.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) September 17, 2018
We’ll have to wait and see how it all plays out, but what’s clear now is that the Gordon trade is a low-risk and potentially high-reward move for Bill Belichick, who spent a fifth-round pick on the chance to change the complexion of his offense. It’s a roll of the dice, for sure—but one worth taking. The Patriots offense under Tom Brady is formidable, even without a true no. 1 on the outside, but should Gordon return to form, he’d be the missing piece that makes that unit damn near unstoppable.
New England’s offseason approach to the receiver spot was interesting. Instead of strengthening the pass-catching corps around their aging superstar quarterback, New England stripped the group down to the studs. They shipped field-stretching star Brandin Cooks (65 catches, 1,082 yards, seven touchdowns) to the Rams, let longtime vet Danny Amendola (61 catches, 659 yards, two touchdowns) walk in free agency, and cut bait on a trio of banged-up potential contributors in Jordan Matthews, Kenny Britt, and Malcolm Mitchell. The Pats’ offseason wheeling and dealing (along with Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances) left Brady with a ragtag receivers group headlined by Chris Hogan and a pair of former first-round busts, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson. Actually, headlined is the wrong word; that was literally the team’s entire receivers group after roster cut-downs (not counting special teams ace Matthew Slater). Three guys.
Unsurprisingly, through two weeks, tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back James White lead the team in receiving yards. Dorsett has paced the Pats in total catches (12 catches, 110 yards, one touchdown), but neither he nor Hogan (four catches, 53 yards, two touchdowns) are the type of take-the-top-off-a-defense threat that Cooks was last season. In 2017, Cooks was an elite downfield receiver. He averaged 16.6 yards per catch, ranked eighth in the league in average targeted air yards (15.1), scored three touchdowns of 20 yards or more (tied for 10th, per Pro Football Focus), and racked up 608 yards on those 20-plus-yard throws (second in deep yards to Tyreek Hill).
This year, Hogan’s average targeted air yards sits at 10.5 (45th), Dorsett’s is at just 9.5 yards (58th), and Brady’s gone deep on just 10.8 percent of his passes (19th leaguewide). After finishing last season with 1,104 yards (fourth) and five touchdowns on passes of 20-plus yards downfield, Brady has notched just 83 deep yards in the first two weeks (a pace that would put him at 664 on the year), zero deep touchdowns, a 37.5 percent accuracy rate (16th), and a 76.6 rating (15th) on those throws. He posted an average depth of target last year of 9.5 (12th), and that’s dropped to 7.9 (18th) this year. In other words, the Patriots don’t have much of a deep game at the moment.
Obviously, Jacksonville’s swarming defense tends to make just about every deep passing attack look bad, so that helps explain some of that statistical drop-off. In Sunday’s 31-20 loss, Jacksonville funneled its defense toward Gronkowski, frequently bracketing him with double- and triple-teams in the middle of the field. The All-Pro tight end finished with just two catches for 15 yards on four targets, and without another true go-to playmaker, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up a bevy of shorter passes to White, Dorsett, and Jacob Hollister, and a handful of jet sweeps to Patterson.
Brady’s still Brady, of course, and connected on a pair of slant-route touchdowns to Hogan, but the future Hall of Famer ended the day averaging just 6.7 yards per attempt. His Week 2 passing chart via NFL Next Gen Stats tells a pretty clear story (especially when compared to the AFC championship game chart) of what went wrong: With Cooks gone, New England lacked the ability to really challenge on the perimeter, an area of the field patrolled by the Jaguars’ top-tier cornerback duo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.
Should these two teams meet again come January, the Patriots are going to need a better offensive plan. Enter Josh Gordon. And a few big, obvious caveats.
Gordon’s substance-abuse suspensions are well documented. He must also master New England’s notoriously complex playbook, which includes option routes, audibles, and sight adjustments (non-verbal changes to routes based on how the defense lines up) as part of every single play. Brady requires precision footwork and timing from his pass catchers, meaning they’d better be exactly where he wants them to be, and at the exact right moment, if they’re going to earn a spot in the rotation. Brady spoke about trust with his receivers this week: “You tell them to run a certain route and they run it the way that you talked about it, the ball is thrown, it’s caught, it’s a positive play and then you do it again. If it’s a flip of the coin and 50-50, sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong; I mean, nobody can really depend on that.”
It’s not going to be easy for Gordon to hit the ground running, and there’s no guarantee he’ll ever master New England’s offense well enough to get onto the field. But if he can stay healthy and handle the playbook (it helps that Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley uses the Erhardt-Perkins system, giving Gordon a head start on the language of New England’s offense), he’s got the physical talent to become a major force multiplier for the Patriots passing offense.
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, and with runaway speed, Gordon is, at least in theory, a true field-tilting threat. His mere presence could change the geometry of defensive schemes and force safeties to play a few steps deeper and closer to the side he’s lined up on, or even make teams think twice about which coverages to run. Against man-coverage looks, Gordon brings that Odell Beckham Jr.–style beat the first guy then score from anywhere on the field type potential. (In 2013, Gordon finished fourth in yards after the catch and fifth in yards after the catch per reception.) Paired with an elite talent like Gronkowski, Gordon would make it tougher for teams to decide which Patriots pass catcher to consider in game planning.
It’s been five years since we’ve seen Gordon at his peak, but the talent is still apparent: In Week 1, he caught this pass over cornerback Cameron Sutton, and showed the coordination and body control to reach around and over the defender to latch on to the pass, spin, and still keep his feet in bounds for the score.
And late last year, he showed some of his breakaway playmaking ability.
It’s impossible to predict how the Gordon era in New England will unfold. The fact the Patriots acquired the former Brown for a midround pick (and even got a seventh-rounder back) should certainly temper expectations, as it points to a lack of perceived value leaguewide. The difficulty that so many players before him have had in picking up the Patriots offense certainly doesn’t help, either.
There’s always the chance, though, that the best is yet to come. During his breakout 2013 campaign in Cleveland, Gordon posted excellent production by catching passes from the likes of Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, and Brian Hoyer. Now, he’s going to be paired with something he’s never had: an elite quarterback who can put the ball exactly where he wants it on every single play. If Gordon, now slightly older and perhaps slightly out of shape, can show up in New England and prove he’s still capable of stretching a defense, going up high to pull down passes in coverage, and picking up chunk yards after the catch, he could unlock the Patriots passing game.