Slot Receiver: New England Patriots Training Camp Battles

Julian Edelman Danny Amendola

Training camp is just three weeks away, and the New England Patriots already have a big spot up for grabs. Following Danny Amendola’s departure to the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots already needed to find a new slot receiver. That need has only grown with Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games of the season. Somebody needs to step up to fill this opening, and the Patriots have a few choices to pick from.

New England Patriots Training Camp Battles: Slot Receiver

The Contenders

Entering training camp, the top three contenders for the slot receiver role appear to be Jordan Matthews, Braxton Berrios, and Riley McCarron. Each player brings something different to the competition, and each should be given a shot to win the position.

Jordan Matthews

Let’s begin with the presumed frontrunner, Jordan Matthews. Matthews initially entered the league as the Philadelphia Eagles second-round draft pick in 2013. During his Eagles tenure, Matthews was one of the most prolific slot receivers in the league. From 2013 to 2016, Matthews recorded 225 receptions for a combined 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns. Almost all of this production came from the slot, and he recorded more yards from the slot than any other receiver from 2013-2016.

However, his production dipped drastically in 2017. Matthews had the worst season of his career in 2017, but there were clear reasons for his shortcomings.  For one, he was fighting injuries for basically the entire season. Matthews played just 10 games in 2017 and looked severely hampered in most of them. Additionally, he wasn’t a great scheme fit for the run-heavy Buffalo offense. All of this led to a season in which Matthews accounted for just 282 yards and a touchdown on 25 receptions.

The Patriots signed Matthews on a cheap one-year deal, and the veteran receiver seems to be a great fit. He received starting reps in minicamp and was reportedly catching everything in sight. While he hasn’t earned the slot role yet, the position is his to lose.

Braxton Berrios

Berrios is one of the more intriguing players on the roster and is one of the biggest X-factors in camp. The rookie slot receiver fits the mold of Patriots greats, as his measurables and build align well with Wes Welker, Edelman, and Amendola.

During his final season with the Miami Hurricanes, Berrios recorded 680 receiving yards and eight touchdowns out of the slot. The eight touchdowns were the third best among FBS wide receivers. Despite being a sixth-round pick, there’s a lot of reason to believe in Berrios.

However, Berrios is facing an uphill battle. The sixth-round rookie missed the grand majority of OTA’s and minicamp while nursing an injury. Obviously, you need to get on the field in order to prove you can play, and Berrios hasn’t done that yet. However, he’s in the position where a strong camp and preseason could easily earn him a roster spot.

Riley McCarron

Riley McCarron is a true wild card in the sense that nobody knows what to expect from him. On paper, McCarron is arguably the best athlete of the three aforementioned receivers. Per’s Doug Kyed, McCarron is “quicker than Danny Amendola, more agile than Julian Edelman, faster than Chris Hogan, and more explosive than Wes Welker.”

As Kyed notes, all of McCarron’s testable numbers show that he could be an elite athlete. McCarron’s 40-yard dash, 10-yard split, vertical leap, broad jump, short shuttle, and three-cone times are better than Edelman, Welker, and Amendola, some by a considerable margin.

However, being a great athlete and being a great football player doesn’t always go hand in hand. All the athleticism in the world won’t mean a thing if you don’t know the playbook or how to run routes. McCarron could beat out Berrios if he’s polished up his game, but that’s a lot easier said than done.

The slot receiver is a notoriously difficult position to play, and several of the Patriots greats needed time before they were ready for it. Edelman, Amendola, and Welker each needed multiple years in the league before becoming stars. Perhaps the same is true for McCarron.

For a player who has yet to make his professional debut, McCarron has had several positive mentors on his professional journey. He spent the 2017 pre-season with the Houston Texans, working with former Patriots star Wes Welker. As a member of the Patriots, McCarron reportedly shadowed Amendola throughout the 2017 season. If he can put his athleticism together, he may be the next great Patriots slot receiver.

Last Word on Slot Receivers

Despite the unfamiliarity, the Patriots have several quality options for the slot receiver role. Matthews, Berrios, and McCarron all bring something different to the table, and each guy has the potential to play a big role on the team.

Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Jordan Matthews doesn’t win the slot receiver job. While Berrios and McCarron both possess the skillsets to challenge Matthews, the four-year NFL veteran is lightyears ahead in terms of football intelligence. This comes from experience, and it will be very difficult for Berrios and McCarron to close that gap. With an offense as complex as the Patriots, Matthews experience should be the deciding factor in earning Tom Brady’s trust.

That being said, there’s still room for one of Berrios and McCarron to make an impact. With Edelman suspended, the Patriots have an extra spot on the Week One roster for an extra receiver. Both players have tremendous upside but are probably a year or two away from being serious contributors.

Right now, expect McCarron to have the upper edge on the final roster spot. McCarron has an extra year of experience on the practice squad, so he’s more familiar with the Patriots complex playbook. Additionally, missing minicamp severely affected Berrios’ chance to make a good first impression. While there’s more than enough time for this prediction to change, it looks as though the Patriots will carry Matthews and McCarron, at least for the first four weeks of the season.

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