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2017 Patriots Training Camp Positional Preview: Passing game will be Cooks-ing in 2017

This article originally appeared in the July 18 issue of Patriots Footall Weekly. To subscribe, click here.

Remember when Randy Moss was at his dominant best in 2007? Records fell and jaws dropped by the week as the future Hall of Famer galloped under Tom Brady's bombs en route to a magical 16-0 regular season.

Ever since Moss left in 2010, however, fans have clamored for his replacement. Talk of a deep threat to take pressure off the underneath guys has permeated the region every year despite the fact that Tom Brady has directed one of the most lethal and efficient offenses in the game annually ever since.

For the most part, the talk has been largely overblown. Brady didn't need Moss to post eye-popping numbers and the Patriots didn't need him to continue winning at extraordinarily high levels. In fact, the two Super Bowl titles New England has captured in the last three years are exactly two more than the Moss teams ever won. 

So, no, the Patriots didn't need a Moss replacement, but that doesn't mean Bill Belichick and the rest of New England aren't happy to have one.

Robert Kraft himself described Brandin Cooks as having the ability to fill a role like Moss did back in the day, and now the former Saint takes his abundant skills to Foxborough, where Brady will almost certainly find ways to utilize his off-the-charts speed and quickness.

In reality, Cooks is a much different animal than Moss. At 5-10 and 189 pounds, Cooks is nowhere near as big as Moss and doesn't line up on the outside anywhere near as often. But like Moss he has the knack for making big plays from anywhere on the field and his home run ability could provide an entirely different element to the passing game in 2017.

As productive as the Patriots have been for the most part, there have been times when things bogged down. Usually that's been due to inconsistent pass protection, but an inability to beat man coverage has at times been responsible as well.

Aside from Rob Gronkowski, most of the Patriots receivers are better-suited to work against zones. That was evident in the Super Bowl when the young Falcons secondary played plenty of man and made life difficult on Brady and the passing game for long stretches. Julian Edelman in particular was stymied by the Falcons and it wasn't until late in the third quarter when the offense finally resembled itself.

So, while the Patriots didn't have to have Cooks, his ability to win one-on-one matchups should be a welcomed addition to an already potent attack. Even though the team has yet to don pads, Cooks looked unstoppable at times during the spring, using his incredibly quick feet to free himself consistently during OTAs and mini-camp.

He should partner with Edelman to form a lethal combination while giving offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels countless lineup combinations to ponder. Those two could work with Chris Hogan, who turned in plenty of big plays of his own last year in his first season with the team, or as part of two-tight end sets with Gronkowski and newcomer Dwayne Allen. Like Cooks, Allen arrived in the offseason via trade and should offer an alternative should injuries once again limit Gronkowski's time.

Speaking of Gronkowski, the former All-Pro tight end was active throughout the spring and looked healthy coming off back surgery that limited him to eight games in 2016.

Those additions provide added depth to the receiving corps that should be the deepest of Brady's career assuming everyone stays healthy. Edelman and his running mate, Danny Amendola, looked sharp throughout the spring. Their quickness and familiarity with Brady make them difficult for a defense to deal with.

Second-year man Malcolm Mitchell enjoyed a productive rookie season and was outstanding in the Super Bowl. However, a knee injury hampered him late in the year and he did not take part in spring practices. His availability could be in question at least at the start of camp, which could provide an opportunity for another newcomer - veteran slot receiver Andrew Hawkins.

Hawkins spent 2016 with Cleveland and has similar traits as Edelman and Amendola. At 5-7, 180, he's even smaller, but the veteran has been a capable complementary piece throughout his six previous NFL seasons.

With all that firepower there doesn't figure to be much room for a younger receiver. Devin Lucien, a seventh-round pick in 2016, spent the year on the practice squad and returns looking for a promotion. Rookies Austin Carr (Northwestern) and Cody Hollister (Arkansas) round out the depth chart.

The true battle for a roster spot might come down to the third tight end. Matt Lengel impressed in limited duty late last season and returns looking to establish himself. James O'Shaughnessy, another trade acquisition, comes from Kansas City with a boatload of special teams experience but very little as a receiver. Rookies Jacob Hollister (Wyoming) and Sam Cotton (Nebraska) are also in the mix but face long odds to stick around.

Brady has rarely had such an embarrassment of riches to throw to, and if health doesn't become a factor the passing game could reach new heights in 2017.

Key Additions:

WR Brandin Cooks (Trade, New Orleans), WR Andrew Hawkins (FA, Cleveland), TE Dwayne Allen (Trade, Indianapolis), TE James O'Shaughnessy (Trade, Kansas City)

Losses:

WR Michael Floyd (FA, Minnesota), TE Martellus Bennett (FA, Green Bay)

Key Player:

Brandin Cooks - Dynamic wideout has a chance to push the offense into an unstoppable gear.

Biggest Question:

Will Dwayne Allen ably fill Bennet's shoes as Rob Gronkowski's backup, especially considering Gronk's sketchy injury history?

Bottom Line:

Tom Brady has the deepest group of receivers at his disposal of his career, and Cooks' home run ability could lift the offense to 2007 heights once again.

Predicted Starters:

WR Julian Edelman

WR Brandin Cooks

WR Chris Hogan

TE Rob Gronkowski

WR Position Coach:

Chad O'Shea, 8th season with Patriots / 14th NFL season

TE Position Coach:

Nick Caley, 3rd season with Patriots / 3rd NFL season

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

NO.PLAYER (POS., yEAR)GP/GSREC.YDS.AVG.LONGTD
83Dwayne Allen (TE, 6th year)14/143540611.6236*
80Danny Amendola (WR, 9th year)12/42324310.6324
84Austin Carr (WR, rookie)      
14**Brandin Cooks (WR, 4th year)****16/12****78****1,173****15.0****98t****8^**
85Sam Cotton (TE, rookie)      
11**Julian Edelman (WR, 9th year)****16/13****98****1,106****11.3****77t****3**
87**Rob Gronkowski (TE, 8th year)****8/6****25****540****21.6****53t****3**
16Andrew Hawkins (WR, 7th year)16/5333249.8333%
15**Chris Hogan (WR, 5th year)****15/14****38****680****17.9****79t****4**
81Cody Hollister (WR, rookie)      
48Jacob Hollister (TE, rookie)      
82Matt Lengel (TE, 2nd year)6/022211.018t1
13Devin Lucien (WR, 1st year)      
19Malcolm Mitchell (WR, 2nd year)14/63240112.556t4
88James O'Shaughnessy (TE, 3rd year)16/32-1-0.500#

Stats for 2016 - bold indicates projected starter
*With Indianapolis; ^With New Orleans; %With Cleveland; #With Kansas City

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