NASHVILLE, Tenn. — One of the New England Patriots’ biggest question marks could now become a top strength.
That changed in a “Flash” with Josh Gordon’s conditional reinstatement.
In Thursday’s practice, the depleted state of the Patriots’ wide receiver corps was highlighted by one of the first passes quarterback Tom Brady threw in competitive 11-on-11 drills. It was to undrafted free agent Gunner Olszewski of Division II Bemidji State.
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No knock on Olszewski, who has accounted well for himself, but if the Patriots are relying on him to be a starter in their quest for a seventh Super Bowl championship, it would be an obvious sign that their plans at receiver haven’t unfolded as they’d hoped.
The attrition was notable this week.
Julian Edelman hasn’t practiced in training camp due to a thumb injury. First-round draft pick N’Keal Harry came up hobbling in the preseason opener and hasn’t practiced since. Veterans Phillip Dorsett (hand/thumb) and Maurice Harris (possibly his foot) were knocked out of Wednesday’s practice and remain out. And Demaryius Thomas and Cameron Meredith are on the physically unable to perform list.
So that left Brady to throw to mostly undrafted free agents and late-round picks. Remarkably, the offense didn’t seem to miss much of a beat in practices with the Titans, but one could only wonder if that would ultimately catch up to them when games start to count.
He caught passes from Brady at one point in the offseason during his suspension.
“He was around and I needed someone to catch,” Brady said in late July. “I’ve always enjoyed playing with him and obviously hope everything works out for him. I’m hoping for the best, certainly.”
If Gordon, 28, can stay on the right track, he projects as a top-of-the-depth-chart option, alongside Edelman, whose thumb injury isn’t expected to keep him out much longer. Gordon’s size (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and proficiency with vertical routes opened up a new dimension to the Patriots’ offense last season, which could also be augmented by the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Harry, the No. 32 overall pick in the draft out of Arizona State.
Dorsett and undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers (NC State) project next on the depth chart, based on what has unfolded in practice.
Then 2018 sixth-round pick Braxton Berrios, veteran Dontrelle Inman, Olszewski, Damoun Patterson and undrafted Ryan Davis round out the team’s receiving corps.
In announcing Gordon’s conditional reinstatement, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said everyone is rooting for Gordon “personally and professionally.” That has been the theme throughout the Patriots’ locker room since last year, with a widespread acknowledgement that football is secondary.
When Gordon recently applied for reinstatement, Dorsett, one of his close friends, said, “It definitely would mean a lot to him, because I know it means a lot to him to just play football. I just hope he gets himself right. That’s my main concern — just him as a human being. I don’t really care about the football thing. I just want to see him be healthy in his mind, body and spirit.”
So Gordon can expect a warm welcome upon his return, which can come as early as Sunday.
Footballwise, the timing couldn’t be better for the Patriots.