FOXBORO, MA – OCTOBER 29: Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots carries the ball after a catch during the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on October 29, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
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New England Patriots star wide receiver Julian Edelman is facing a four-game suspension due to a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policies. Edelman has stated that he will be appealing the suspension. However, if he loses the appeal, Tom Brady will be without his favorite wide receiver against some potentially dangerous opponents: the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions, and Miami Dolphins. After an ACL tear took Edelman out of commission for the 2017 season, the Patriots traded with the Indianapolis Colts for Phillip Dorsett and signed a host of receivers to the practice squad, just in case. With the potential for Edelman’s absence from the field to continue, the Patriots will have to consider their options for the first four games of the season.

Someone Already on the Roster

The Patriots certainly have no shortage at wide receiver. Last Word on Pro Football’s David Latham projects seven receivers to make the 53-man roster come September 1: Edelman, Kenny Britt, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jordan Matthews, Braxton Berrios, and Matt Slater.

Patterson and Slater will make most of their contributions on special teams and are unlikely to spend much time lined up out wide this season. At first glance, Hogan would appear to be the top option with Edelman out. Hogan has proved himself a dynamic playmaker when he can stay healthy. Unfortunately, Hogan has yet to define himself as a clear top wide receiver, even among this group. Latham identified Malcolm Mitchell as a possible number two on the depth chart behind Edelman, but Mitchell himself is unproven and has struggled to stay healthy.

As of right now, there does not seem to be a clear one-to-one replacement for Edelman in the receiving corps. His absence would simply move a cast of lesser (but still quality) receivers up a single spot on the depth chart.

Someone Not Yet on the Roster

Bill Belichick has proven himself a mastermind when it comes to bringing doomed careers back to life. When looking at the list of unrestricted free agent wide receivers, some interesting characters jump out. The most intriguing prospect, by far, is Dez Bryant. He is easily the most talented receiver currently in the free agent pool. And, unfortunately, that removes him as an option. Even if the Patriots brass could ignore Bryant’s toxic attitude, the price tag for a player of that caliber would be out of the question, especially considering the contract-related complaints of standing high-ranking Patriots players.

But there are still free agent options out there for the Patriots. Michael Floyd spent some time with the Patriots in 2016, including laying down one of the best blocks by a wide receiver in recent memory. Floyd is a talented player who won’t demand the expensive contract that Bryant probably will.

Along those same lines, Jeremy Maclin is still floating in free agency after being dumped off by the Baltimore Ravens. Maclin still has a good year left in him and would likely jump at the chance to play for a championship-caliber team.

Maclin and Floyd seem like the most likely free agent candidates to wind up on the Patriots roster between now and the beginning of October, but the scheming mind of Belichick is a complicated and unpredictable one. Eric DeckerKamar AikenEli Rogers, and Dontrelle Inman also jump off the page as potential cheap, short-term replacements.

Someone on Another Team’s Roster

As mentioned earlier, the Patriots have too many receivers as is. The thought of cutting them seems like a waste of talent, so there is always the possibility of a trade. New England has established a friendly trading relationship with the Cleveland Browns this off-season. The Patriots could possibly ship Dorsett and whichever tight end does not make the cut to Cleveland in exchange for Corey Coleman, the young receiver that never really lived up to his potential.

The Patriots could even consider going into business with the Green Bay Packers for the likes of Geronimo Allison or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to bring Adam Humphries into the fold. Humphries caught 73% of his passes in 2017 and features an almost identical height and weight to Edelman.

Last Word on Replacing Edelman

At the end of the day, Edelman’s suspension might be much ado about nothing. The Patriots proved during the 2017 season that they could win without him, but the loss of Danny Amendola this off-season makes a continuation of that trend seem unlikely. The most likely option is that the Patriots will supplement the bottom of the receiving corps for the first four games of the season rather than trying to bring in a new number one.

Look for almost-constant fluctuation among practice squad-level players over the course of the preseason, and expect Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell/Jordan Matthews to split duties as Brady’s primary option at receiver.

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