Patriots' 26 transactions at WR this season highlight big struggle

Riddick defends Gordon (1:20)

Louis Riddick says people should be more sympathetic toward and less critical of Josh Gordon. (1:20)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes on the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. With the Patriots losing Josh Gordon to an indefinite NFL suspension on Thursday, it marked the team’s 26th transaction involving a wide receiver since training camp began in late July. That’s unusually high.

The struggle to decisively address the receiver position is what ultimately led to the Patriots’ willingness to assume the risk of acquiring Gordon in mid-September, and after Gordon helped stabilize things for a few months, it now creates one of the team’s biggest obstacles to overcome in chasing a championship.

It sparks an obvious big-picture question with the benefit of hindsight: After trading Brandin Cooks, and then having Danny Amendola depart in free agency, did Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio miscalculate that they could find suitable replacements?

Consider some of the more notable receivers who had spots on the 53-man roster and ultimately didn’t stick: Jordan Matthews, Eric Decker, Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, Chad Hansen, Amara Darboh, Corey Coleman, Bennie Fowler and now Gordon.

Because of that, quarterback Tom Brady has assumed a heavy burden.

It reminds me a bit of 2006, when the Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game with a no-frills receiving corps led by Reche Caldwell. The next year, Belichick & Co. loaded up at receiver with Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth.

Similarly, the position figures to be close to the top of the team’s priority list in 2019.

2. Wyoming pride will be on the field Sunday when the Patriots host the Buffalo Bills, as second-year New England tight end Jacob Hollister has a close bond with his former college teammate, rookie Bills quarterback Josh Allen. When Hollister was emerging as a top player at Wyoming, he had hosted Allen on a recruiting visit, with both having the common link of coming from junior college. “We bonded really quickly,” said Hollister, who added that Allen’s confidence struck him immediately. “We’ll text every now and then and check in. I’m really proud of him. He’s had a crazy year, stepping in that [starting] role he’s in now, and he’s done a great job.”

3. Rob Gronkowski’s yards after catch are significantly down this season, with ESPN’s Stats & Information noting that Gronkowski’s average of 3.9 yards after the catch ranks 23rd in the NFL among eligible tight ends. For comparison, two years ago, he was averaging 9.2 yards after the catch, which was an NFL-best among tight ends.

4. Former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen, who sometimes jokes that his claim to fame is being selected in the pick (No. 198) before Brady in the 2000 NFL draft, put together one of the most extensive breakdowns of the top current defensive backs you’ll find (ESPN+). What stood out to me was his praise for Devin McCourty as "most versatile," and how he does things that aren’t easy for the common fan to appreciate. Bowen lays it out in simple terms with these numbers: In addition to his traditional snaps at safety, McCourty has played 93 snaps in the slot, 45 at corner and 188 as an inside/outside linebacker.

5. One of the nicest parts of Christmas this year for newly signed Patriots safety Obi Melifonwu is that he gets to spend the holiday at home. The former UConn standout spent his teenage years in Grafton, Massachusetts, and after getting released by the Raiders earlier this year and signing a two-year deal with the Patriots on Nov. 6, he has been heading home on days off. “It’s really nice to live 40 minutes away from my family,” he said.

6. Fullback James Develin has been a bright spot as a goal-line rusher this year (four TDs), but other than that, the offense hasn’t had the consistent success it wants in goal-to-go situations. It’s rare to see the Patriots near the bottom in that category; they rank 16th in red zone touchdown percentage (58). If the season ended today, that would be the team’s lowest ranking since 2008.

7. Titans cornerback Logan Ryan, who entered the NFL as a third-round pick of the Patriots in 2013, opined on Twitter that reporters or analysts covering football should be required to take some type of course on the game (he later deleted the tweet). It was an interesting perspective to hear, and when I read it, this thought came to mind: Some of Bill Belichick’s weekly news conferences, for the better half of the past 19 years, could qualify for course credits.

8a. Did you know: Opponents are averaging 4.99 yards per rush against the Patriots, which ranks New England 31st in that category. That has the Patriots on pace to finish with the second-worst mark in franchise history -- 5.09 in 1973.

8b. Did you know: If the Patriots beat the Bills, it will mark Brady’s 30th career victory over the franchise. That would extend his own record. Brett Favre’s 26 wins over the Lions was the previous high mark.

9. Patriots receiver Chris Hogan, who spent 2013-15 with the Bills, paid a high compliment to veteran Buffalo defensive tackle Kyle Williams this past week: He put Williams – who has spent his entire 13-year career with the Bills -- in the same category as Brady when it comes to the best teammates he has been around.

10. The Patriots lost practice-squad offensive lineman Eric Smith to the Jets last week, with Smith electing to depart because he saw it as a better chance to play and grow into a significant role. The Patriots had been paying Smith at a higher level than a standard practice-squad player ($340,000), while the Jets offered a two-year deal (prorated at $550,000 in 2018 over two games and $570,000 in 2019). While it might seem like a no-brainer on the surface, there is some risk for Smith: If the Jets fire head coach Todd Bowles after the season, as expected, that means starting over with a new coaching staff once again.