There might not be a correct answer to the challenge of covering New England Patriots wide receivers for opposing defenses this season.
In Thursday’s preseason finale, the Patriots trotted out Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas as their starting trio. That’s two 6-foot-3, 225-pound outside receivers and one of the NFL’s best slot men inside. You can’t double-cover both formidable outside wideouts, and quality cornerbacks over 6-feet don’t exactly grow on trees. It’s an unenviable task for defensive coordinators to devise a plan.
We got a glimpse into how the Patriots would use Gordon, Thomas and Edelman together on Thursday night.
— Gordon primarily will be the Patriots’ X receiver with Demaryius Thomas in the Z role. Both receivers are prototypical X receivers with a combination of size, speed and physicality to beat press coverage. But Gordon is younger, has more experience in the Patriots’ offense and isn’t coming off of a ruptured Achilles, so it makes sense to put Thomas in the Z role.
Thomas has mostly been an X receiver throughout his career. When he was in Denver in his prime, he was the X, Eric Decker was the Z and Wes Welker was the slot.
This won’t be the first time Thomas is playing the second-banana role, however. After Thomas was traded to the Texans last season, DeAndre Hopkins remained as the X with Thomas taking over the Z until he got hurt.
Still, it should theoretically take some adjustment for Thomas to play a relatively new role in a different offense. It didn’t appear that way Thursday night, however.
Thomas caught 7-of-8 targets for 87 yards with two touchdowns. The only incompletion thrown his way came when rookie QB Jarrett Stidham was hit while throwing, and the Giants picked him off.
Of Thomas’ seven catches, six came when he was lined up as the Z receiver. He caught six passes for 84 yards with a touchdown out of the Z role. He caught one 3-yard touchdown pass in five slot snaps.
— Gordon actually looked rustier than Thomas in his first game action of 2019. He was targeted six times and caught two passes for 30 yards. He also drew a defensive pass interference penalty.
Gordon caught two passes on four targets for 30 yards with the DPI from the X role. He didn’t catch one target out of the slot and one target from the Z position.
Gordon also had trouble with contested catches and dropped one pass. Thomas, meanwhile, caught one pass while draped in coverage and used some savvy, putting his hands up at the last minute, to haul in his 35-yard touchdown pass.
On his second touchdown, the play turned into a scramble drill, and Thomas found a pocket in the back left corner of the end zone.
— The Patriots stacked Gordon and Thomas on consecutive plays in the first quarter. The first resulted in a 7-yard pickup by Thomas. The second was thrown incomplete to Gordon.
Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots use some rub routes out of his formation.
— It’s no guarantee that Edelman, Gordon and Thomas will be the Patriots’ starting wide receivers in Week 1 or beyond. Phillip Dorsett, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers are also in the mix. But everyone saw what Gordon could do in the Patriots’ offense last season when he had 720 yards in 11 games. And Thomas certainly looked a lot better in limited action than anyone expected, although it was against backup cornerbacks.
Harry provides a similarly big target as Gordon and Thomas. While all three players can play in the slot, Edelman, who historically has split his snap between the outside and inside roles evenly, will likely take on a greater role in the slot this season.
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports images