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Why Patriots current WR group could be fastest of Belichick/Brady Era

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(Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports)

FOXBOROUGH — If newcomers Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett can wrap their heads around the playbook, that pair — along with returnee Chris Hogan — could give the Patriots the fastest group of wide receivers of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Era.

"There are a lot of cheetahs on this team,” Cooks said earlier this summer, and he was spot on in his assessment: according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Cooks was clocked at 22 MPH last season in game action with the Saints. Dorsett ran 4.3 second in the 40-yard dash as a collegian at the combine. And Hogan was tied for the league lead in yards per catch in 2016 with 17.9.

If they can get on the same page with the quarterback, it should make for plenty of fast football this season in New England, according to former Patriots wide receiver Donte Stallworth.

“I think people do underestimate the Patriots’ vertical game,” Stallworth told Bostonsportsjournal.com on Monday afternoon. “I said this once they picked up Cooks in the offseason: this is another dimension that has been lacking in the New England passing game — that consistent, play-to-play deep threat.

“When you have a burner like Brandin, his opportunities are going to spike now that the season is about to start. The Patriots hold back a lot in the preseason — they don’t show a lot of their playbook. So when it comes to the deep passing game, a lot of what we saw in the preseason is just a small fraction of the totality of the passing game.”

The two other comparable seasons where the Patriots were able to bring this same sort of speed to the receiver spot were in 2003 and 2007:

The ’03 team was sneaky fast on offense, with Bethel Johnson, Deion Branch and David Patten all capable of blowing by defensive backs on the outside. Teamed with the likes of savvy, quick guys like Troy Brown and David Givens, you could understand how they’d be part of this group. While Johnson wasn’t always the most effective receiver in the system, he did bring an added dimension of world-class speed to the group. And we’ve already written about how Cooks reminds us of Branch.

Meanwhile, the 2007 team also featured some explosive speed as well, with Stallworth and Randy Moss, alongside quicker guys like Wes Welker. It’s not the only way to measure success in the deep passing game, but that season, Brady averaged 8.3 yards gained per pass attempt, second-best of his career.

But the Cooks/Dorsett/Hogan trio projects to have home-run potential in the New England passing game. Even after the season-ending injury to Julian Edelman, the current Patriots’ receiving corps will be able to showcase a level of explosiveness New England hasn’t seen on a consistent basis in many years. Cooks spent training camp dusting defensive backs. Hogan surprised many with his big-play ability last year, finishing with 11 receptions of 20 yards or more. And Dorsett made his bones as a deep threat with the Colts — his 14.76 yards per catch is one of the top totals in the league for any receiver who has played in at least 25 games since the start of the 2015 season.

The Patriots’ passing game will need all of those elements to come together, especially in the early going, if they want to find a groove without Edelman.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the offense and the passing game changes without Julian in there, because Julian is Tom’s safety valve,” said Stallworth. “If you look at that Super Bowl catch, Tommy essentially threw it into triple coverage, and he expected Julian to make a play. That’s the trust that might be missing with some of the other guys in the passing game, at least in the early going.

“It’ll happen over the course of the year; the more guys play together, the more chemistry will develop. I expect them to have great year, but it’ll be interesting to see how it all comes together.”

After practice Monday, Brady reminder reporters that even if you can have three world-class sprinters at receiver, if they can’t catch the ball, none of it matters.

“I think really it just comes down to whatever your different skillsets are, it’s still a matter of execution. You know, fast, quick, tall, smart – I mean, you’ve got to put it all together, and you’ve got to put it together on every play,” Brady said. “Those guys who can present problems with speed, that’s what they’ve got to do, and then when they get the ball, they’ve got to play that way.

“It’s just everyone’s got different skill sets and it’s really a matter of how everyone comes together within our style of offense and how we can execute in order to get the ball down the field.”