How Patriots will fill Julian Edelman void coming into focus

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have a significant void to fill with receiver Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension for violating the league's PED policy to open the 2018 season, and the first five practices of training camp have provided an early snapshot of how it might unfold.

The biggest winners? Receiver Phillip Dorsett, tight end Jacob Hollister and running back Rex Burkhead.

Things can always change, and they probably will in some form, but what the initial stretch of training camp reinforced is that the Patriots are going to tap all positions to account for the loss of one of quarterback Tom Brady’s go-to-guys.

It’s what they always do, which is why looking solely at the receiver position would be overlooking how the Patriots have mostly operated for Bill Belichick’s 19-year coaching tenure when losing a key player for an extended stretch.

In Monday night’s practice inside Gillette Stadium, for example, the offense showcased its “pony” grouping of having two running backs on the field at the same time. So that meant instead of having just “passing back” James White on the field in obvious passing situations, the attack added the versatile Burkhead to the mix as well. On one play, White was split wide to Brady’s right and Burkhead motioned out of the backfield to the opposite side in an empty look.

Then there was the time over the weekend when Brady and a few offensive skill-position players departed for the second practice field to get in some extra work during a special-teams drill and Hollister -- the 2017 undrafted free-agent out of Wyoming -- was part of the group alongside fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, White and Dorsett. That's good company for Hollister to keep.

So without Edelman, that could mean more two-tight end packages with a Gronkowski/Hollister pairing, as the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Hollister (87 total offensive snaps in 2017) is in position to seize a larger role as a pass-catching presence. He drew praise from Brady during one practice after snaring a laser in the back of the end zone.

“Jacob improved a lot last year and he’s gotten off to a good start this year from the offseason program to our spring workouts to the start of training camp,” Belichick said Monday night. “He’s still got a long way to go, but he has gained and will gain a lot more. I think he’s got a great future.”

And finally, there are the receivers themselves, where the 5-foot-10, 192-pound Dorsett has stood out early in camp. Part of that is due to attrition -- Jordan Matthews tweaked his hamstring on Sunday and Kenny Britt (hamstring) and Malcolm Mitchell (knee) haven’t practiced at all -- while part of it is due to his own growth in the system.

The speedy Dorsett, who entered the NFL as a first-round draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts in 2015, was put in a tough spot last year when the Patriots acquired him for quarterback Jacoby Brissett on Sept. 2. That meant he didn’t have an offseason or training camp to learn the team’s system, which adds context to his modest production (33 percent of the snaps, 12 catches, 194 yards).

Like Hollister, he is now in position to become a bigger part of the team’s plans, which shows up on the practice field as he aligns in a variety of spots, which is the type of versatility that is valued highly by coaches. Belichick noted Monday on Sirius XM NFL Radio’s “Movin’ The Chains” program that Dorsett “had a real good spring.”

So if the season began today, a Dorsett-Chris Hogan pairing in the two-receiver set would be the likely scenario. Cordarrelle Patterson is a good bet to be integrated into the mix as well -- his roster spot is safe as a top kickoff returner and gunner -- while youngsters Braxton Berrios and Riley McCarron have a lot of ground to make up to make a charge for a roster spot. Their work as punt returners will be a key part of the analysis, too.

Patterson, for his part, was hard on himself Monday night. He said he is thinking too much and needs to cut things loose so he can play faster.

He also said this, “That’s Tom Brady, man. You better get where the hell you need to be at the right time or you aren’t going to get the ball.”

That’s an Edelman specialty, of course, which the Patriots missed last season when he was out with a torn ACL, and it’s what they’ll be without for the first four games of 2018.

Although it’s early, the initial stretch of training camp has provided a snapshot of how the pieces might come together.