It's fairly obvious -- unless you view the Patriots' roster through navy blue-colored sunglasses, right now, New England does not have enough at receiver to give itself the best chance to win a Super Bowl.
Can they be a top-10 offense and reach the AFC championship with the current roster? Sure, and they probably will. Could they be competitive in a Super Bowl with the current group? Yes, if Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan stay healthy. With Edelman able to replace Danny Amendola's catches, the Patriots should be able to replace the 23 catches for Tom Brady's 28 completions in the Super Bowl, when he threw for 505 yards (Gronkowski had nine, Amendola eight and Hogan six).
But to use just that game to justify the state of the receivers is a tough sell, because first you have to get there. And the Patriots saw 97 regular-season receptions walk out the door with the offseason departures of Brandin Cooks and Dion Lewis (again, we're saying Edelman will replace Amendola's output). If those aren't replaced, that's another six receptions each game of wear and tear on Gronkowski, Edelman, Hogan and James White. Sure, Sony Michel could, in theory, could replace Lewis' receptions. But that's a big projection. And it still leaves the 65 catches and 1,082 yards from Cooks.
Who's going to do that? Phillip Dorsett? Cordarrelle Patterson? Riley McCarron? A combination of all three? It can't totally be ruled out. But, again, it's just a leap of faith. And one I don't think the Patriots are willing to take.
They are expected to be active through a trade, waiver claim and/or free-agent signing in the coming days. What are the most-likely options? I asked three general managers and all of them were unanimous that a big-time trade is unlikely. All three said the best two options for the Patriots were:
Either signing Dez Bryant, or trading for Browns receiver Josh Gordon.
I have a hard time seeing the team doing either unless they're utterly desperate. Bryant may not be able to grasp the offense, and Gordon has all types of issues that make him extremely unreliable. But Gordon is only making $790,000 and is still a restricted free agent after this year, which would be extremely enticing to the Patriots if they had faith in his ability.
Beyond that, the Patriots will look to acquire a player who is either in the last year of his deal, or on the outside looking in for their teams. We've asked around, and here are lists for both.
Need to make cap space
One thing to keep in mind before we get to the lists: To acquire anyone making more than, say, $2 million, the Patriots are going to have to create cap room. (And keep in mind they need roughly $7 million in operating space for the season.) How can they do that? Releasing the likes of Dwayne Allen ($5 million), Patterson ($3.25 million), Jason McCourty ($2.968 million), Mike Gillislee ($2.181 million), Eric Rowe ($1.1 million).
Other players who could be traded: Dont'a Hightower (net of about $3.5 million in cap space).
PLAYERS IN FINAL YEAR OF DEAL
Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals ($11 million '18 salary): Pretty much a pipe dream, as he negotiated a no-trade clause into his contract. The white whale is not going to happen. Likelihood: No chance.
Randall Cobb, Packers ($9.1 million): The Patriots need boundary receivers. And Cobb, who is injury-prone, is not that. Patriots would also need to make room financially for Cobb. Likelihood: Unlikely.
Kelvin Benjamin, Bills ($8.459 million): Buffalo's new regime has shown it isn't afraid to make moves for the future. The Patriots have seen Benjamin's success against them up close. Would need to clear space. Likelihood: Possible.
Golden Tate, Lions ($7 million): Probably the player who makes the most sense, but this would require Detroit — which kept its whole offensive operation intact despite hiring a new coach in Matt Patricia — to take Tate away from Matthew Stafford and their offense, which is pretty good. Patriots would near to clear space. Likelihood: Possible but unlikely.
Cole Beasley, Cowboys ($3.25 million): Dallas loves their players and wants to make Dak Prescott/Jason Garrett look good, so hard to see this one. Plus, Beasley is an inside guy and with Edelman returning, not really needed. Likelihood: Unlikely.
Kevin White, Bears ($2.693 million): Now we're talking. White was the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft, but ended each season on injured reserve. This is a guy who needs a fresh start. He's big (6-foot-3) and fast (4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash) when healthy. But can he get up to speed quickly or even be relied on? Likelihood: Very possible, but not be an instant game-changer.
Tyler Lockett, Seahawks ($1.907 million): Seahawks just signed him to a contract extension today.
Martavis Bryant, Raiders ($1.907 million): Certainly talented, but I have no faith he can pick up the offense and be a reliable player. Likelihood: Highly unlikely.
Devin Funchess, Panthers ($1.087 million): Looks to be Carolina's top receiver, so it's doubtful they'd listen. Could a good free-agent signing in the offseason. Likelihood: Highly unlikely.
Josh Gordon, Browns ($790,001): Arguably the most talented receiver in the NFL. The Patriots have stayed away from him in recent years due to his issues. But do they have information that has changed their mind? Likelihood: Possible but unlikely.
Mike Campanaro, Titans ($790,000): If the Patriots want a slot guy and a punt returner, then sure. But he's not making a difference. Likelihood: Possible but unlikely.
Michael Floyd, Saints ($790,000): Could be cut loose in New Orleans, so he could be had for basically nothing. He's been here before and shown some potential ... if he's past his off-field issues. Likelihood: Very possible.
Bernard Reedy, Bucs ($555,000): Former Patriot who could be an upgrade over Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios. Likelihood: Very possible, but not an instant game-changer.
Tommylee Lewis, Saints ($630,000): A small but super fast receiver with kick-return viability. A good talent to cultivate. Likelihood: Very possible, but not be an instant game-changer.
OTHER POSSIBLE TRADE TARGETS
Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas, Broncos ($8.125/$8.5 million): Denver would clear some cap, but Sanders is one of their top targets. The Patriots signed him to an offer sheet when he was an RFA in Pittsburgh. Makes much more sense in the New England scheme than Thomas, but sources say Bill Belichick likes him as well. John Elway and Belichick did business previously on TE A.J. Derby. Likelihood: Possible.
Mohamed Sanu, Falcons ($6.125 million): Bit of a pipe dream considering his status on the Falcons' roster, but it never hurts to ask. And you know Thomas Dimitroff has a past with Belichick. Likelihood: Highly unlikely.
Brandon Marshall, Seahawks ($1.015 million): Yup, that Brandon Marshall. He's no lock to make the Seahawks. Had 109 catches for 1,502 yards for the Jets just three years ago. Might be worth kicking the tires -- he's always professed an admiration for the Patriots. Likelihood: Possible.
WHO ARE THE MOST LIKELY TARGETS FOR THE PATRIOTS?
So where does that leave us? Here's a list, ranked by likelihood/impact on the Patriots:
Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos
Josh Gordon, Browns
Kevin White, Bears
Brandon Marshall, Seahawks
Michael Floyd, Saints
Bernard Reedy, Bucs
Tommylee Lewis, Saints
Golden Tate, Lions