The New England Patriots' offense exists as an amoeba, constantly altering its shape and dimensions to best fit its circumstances year to year, game to game, moment to moment.
This particular offseason an interesting trend has emerged in Foxborough: Big receivers.
For a team that has been known for years to churn out productive shifty, smaller slot wideouts like it owned a 3D player printer, the desire to gobble up 6-foot-3 pass catchers offers a different makeup to the 2019 edition of Josh McDaniels' offense.
Thus far, the Patriots drafted N'Keal Harry (6-foot-2) in the first round, signed Demaryius Thomas (6-foot-3), Maurice Harris (6-foot-3), and most recently Dontrelle Inman (6-foot-3). The new addition of Inman coupled with the jettisoning of smaller slot receiver Bruce Ellington underscored that the Patriots want to be bigger across the board at the receiver spot this year. Currently, only Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Braxton Berrios and Ryan Davis stand under 6-foot-2 in the entire corps. If Josh Gordon gets reinstated at any point this year, that's another 6-foot-3 frame to add to the mix.
McDaniels, when asked about how Harry's skills fit with how the Pats' offense runs, explained last week that New England tries never to pigeonhole a player into a specific job, but rather conceive an offense that meshes with what the comprised talent does best.
"I think the biggest thing we try to do with our team and our offense in particular is take guys who have a skill and a talent and don't try to fit them to what we've done in the past," McDaniels said, via NBC Sports Boston. "If you try to do that, you tell me where the next Troy Brown is. Or the next Logan Mankins or the next Tom Brady. We'll try to go get that guy. It's not that easy.
"You have to have enough flexibility and versatility in your system that you can maybe feature the X-receiver. Or the Z-receiver. Or the tight end. Or two tight ends. Or the halfback. Whatever style you want to be, it should reflect the talent of your team. So that's what we're gonna do with (Harry) and see what happens. Now, he's a rookie and he's got a long way to go but in terms of him being different, he is. And we'll try to see what he does well and see what can fit in his wheelhouse."
The Patriots have always stayed a step ahead of the evolutionary chain, from dive-bombing opponents in 2007 with Randy Moss, to ludicrous-speed tempo action, to morphing into a grind-out-the-pulp offense the later part of last season.
Playing with a plethora of bigger receivers gives a 41-year-old Tom Brady a different component this go-around.
"It's always interesting when you add an element for players that maybe they necessarily haven't done as much of something," McDaniels said. "Years ago, we hadn't been a big 12 (one back, two tight ends) personnel team and all of a sudden we did that. Back in 07, we went to 11 (one back, one tight end) personnel and spread the field. Years after that, we were more of a tempo team. It kind of moves and really reflects your team."
Currently built, the Pats are a bigger team that could churn through teams that deploy a bevy of smaller quicker defenders, either by running over them or using a player like Harry as a slot-weapon against smaller corners.
"Julian plays a lot outside the formation," he said. "Does Julian do some of those things inside the formation? Absolutely he does. But he does a lot more on the outside in the running game and passing game. It's what he's become. There's a little bit of a difference based on the way we've used him than those other guys."
Edelman played 52 percent of his snaps from the slot last season after taking just 44 and 42 percent from that spot in 2016 and 2015, respectively, per Next Gen Stats. McDaniels assessment seems to suggest he'd like to get back to the 40ish percent in 2019. With Dorsett an outside receiver (15 percent from the slot in 2018), and Thomas also playing primarily on the outside during his career, Harry and Inman could battle for time as big-slot options in 2019.
As the Patriots always do, they'll find out what combination fits best, then roll forward as the season progresses.
"You have to look at who you have and what they do well and then you gotta look at, 'Alright, who are we playing and what are the best advantages we can gain this week?'" McDaniels explained. "You try to, as many times as you can in a game, you try to gain an advantage. Sometimes that's with skill. Sometimes that's with size, sometimes that's with tempo, sometimes that's with play-style or personnel groupings. But you just take as many good football players in a room and coach them as best you can.
"Right now, we're not making any of those determinations. Today and for the next couple months, we're not doing any of that. Now it's about foundation, evaluation, let them rep, see what happens. Is it good enough? Is it not? Do we keep doing it? I don't think we really know the answers about what we're gonna look like in September and October yet. That's for another day down the road but that's why this part of the year is fun."