Patriots' wide receiver corps evolved during season, now faces big playoff test

Chargers' James: 'We have a lot of confidence' (1:57)

Chargers safety Derwin James tells Scott Van Pelt that after beating the Ravens, his team has a lot of confidence heading into the next round vs. the Patriots. (1:57)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Walk into the New England Patriots locker room and there is a hard-to-miss reminder, directly next to quarterback Tom Brady, of how the team’s wide receiver personnel has evolved over the course of the year: Josh Gordon’s name is still above his old locker despite the fact he was suspended indefinitely by the NFL on Dec. 20 for violating the terms of his reinstatement under the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Losing Gordon marked the Patriots’ 26th transaction at the position since the start of training camp, and has left them with a group of receivers -- Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson -- that doesn’t rank as highly as some others the team has entered the postseason with in the past.

So as the Patriots prepare to face the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs on Sunday (CBS, 1:05 p.m. ET), one of the lingering questions is whether they have enough weapons around Brady against one of the NFL’s better defensive units.

Trading Brandin Cooks in the offseason and watching Danny Amendola sign with the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent created two voids that have been a work in progress to fill. It’s a big part of what led the team to acquire Gordon in mid-September.

The ability of Patriots receivers to get open so Brady can get rid of the football quickly against the Chargers’ pass rush will be critical.

Asked what stood out to him about the receiver group this year, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels expressed confidence.

“Versatility, unselfishness, adaptability,” McDaniels said, also noting their work ethic and willingness to compete. “They’ve all served in different roles this year. When you have a group that’s willing to do what the coaching staff thinks is best for the team, and they don’t question it or second-guess anything, it’s really a great thing for a coach. ... That speaks to their character, how much they care about doing what’s best for the team.”

Edelman, who missed the first four games of the season while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substances policy, shouldn’t leave the field much, if at all, against the Chargers.

Coming off a torn ACL that cost him all of the 2017 regular season, he quickly returned to becoming Brady’s go-to guy in many clutch situations, totaling 74 receptions for a team-high 850 yards and six touchdowns this year.

Meanwhile, the departure of Gordon -- who averaged 18 yards per catch over 11 games -- has thrust Hogan into the No. 2 spot on the depth chart (35 catches for 532 yards, 3 TDs). Then Patterson and Dorsett have split the No. 3 role, with their speed tapped on sweep running plays that have become a staple of McDaniels’ offense this season.

Patterson (24 catches, 241 yards, 3 TDs and 42 rushes for 228 yards and 1 TD) missed the season finale with a knee injury, but Bill Belichick expressed confidence that he'll return for the playoffs. And Dorsett enters the playoffs with some momentum, catching the last 16 passes thrown to him. His playing time dipped most when Gordon got going, but he’s back in the mix again and finished with 32 receptions for 290 yards and three touchdowns on the season.

“I love the group that we’ve got,” McDaniels said. “I’m really excited for them to have an opportunity to compete this Sunday in this game. They’re going to have to play very well for us to be able to do the things we need to do to move the football on this defense and try to score points.”