FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – From the opening of training camp in late July to today, there've been considerable changes to New England's wide receiver depth chart.
An injury-riddled group that, only a month ago, was reliant heavily on undrafted rookies and journeyman veterans is now in a much healthier position heading into a Week 3 showdown with AFC East rivals, the New York Jets, who fly into Foxborough on Sunday.
Several factors have contributed: the return of Julian Edelman from a left thumb injury, the reinstatement of Josh Gordon from an NFL suspension, and the arrival of prolific veteran Antonio Brown. Meanwhile, veteran Phillip Dorsett's role as a playmaker continues to develop, as he demonstrated a week ago at Miami (three catches, 39 yards, including a critical 18-yard gain on 3rd-and-17 to keep an eventual scoring drive alive).
"Phil's just dependable," position coach Joe Judge commented Friday. "He's a guy that you know what you're going to get [from] when he comes to work. He's a very intelligent guy, very team-first. He gives us flexibility to move him around on the field by scheme, by need, however we have to. And he's a guy who, the ball just finds him. He's always in the right place at the right time because he's doing his job, executing the way we need him to."
On this sun-splashed Friday, one of the final days of the calendar summer, Judge offered a similarly sunny overall assessment of the players under his direction.
"We've got a great group of guys," remarked Judge, who doubles as the Patriots' special teams coordinator. "Teaching is teaching and they're here to learn."
Brown, a turbulent talent who's currently mired in a number of off-field allegations, has the most to learn at this stage, barely two weeks after his signing. Judge praised the 31-year-old for his attitude and approach to digesting New England's complex offensive system in such a short time.
"Antonio's been preparing as hard as he can football-wise. With his engagement, it's been easy to get him ready," Judge told reporters at Gillette Stadium. "Anything we ask him to do he works hard on, does a lot of work away from the building, studies up, comes in fresh and prepared the next day. He's been a pleasure to work with.
"He's great. He's a football guy all the way. If you're talking ball, you're with him, he loves it. He's very engaged, very energetic. He brings a great new perspective to a lot of things we've done from his experience elsewhere. He's been fun to work with and learn from."
Of course, the Brown imbroglio off the field continues to draw scrutiny around the NFL and beyond.
"I know there are questions about Antonio. We take all the situations with our team seriously and there are some things that we're looking into," head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged during opening remarks to a large media gathering Friday. He wouldn't elaborate much further, though, about Brown's situation, long- or short-term.
Belichick added that Brown remains on the roster and that "When we work on football, we work on football."
Judge agreed that the non-football elements have not affected on-field Jets preparations for the individual or the receiver group as a whole this week.
"We're so focused on the Jets right now," he emphasized, "I don't really think there's anything from the outside affecting what we're doing today. We've got a lot of stuff to prepare for on Fridays. We don't have much time throughout the morning to look past anything but the opponent on Sunday."
The work put in by Gordon since his return in late August has also impressed Judge. Gordon appeared in 11 games last season, his first as a Patriot, catching 40 passes for 720 yards and three TDs. He's hauled in five throws so far this season, including a gritty touchdown catch-and-run in Week 1.
"Josh is awesome. He's a lot of fun," Judge proclaimed. "Normally, we walk in real early in the morning, and Josh is one of the first in the building every day. He's getting after it in the morning, getting his body right and mentally staying ahead on the preparation. He's just been great in the meeting rooms and great on the field. His dependability is really paying off for us."
While rookie first-round draft choice N'Keal Harry has struggled with injuries to this point (he's on the team's injured reserve list at the moment, but eligible to return later this season), Judge indicated that the young player is focused on getting healthy while keeping his football mind sharp. Fellow rookie Gunner Olszewski, a cornerback-turned-receiver who's seen time exclusively as a return specialist through two games, is also earning plaudits from Judge.
"There are a lot of things that are new to him. Playing hard wasn't new to him, playing with energy wasn't new to him, being a tough guy wasn't new to him," Judge observed. "He carries over those attributes and that helps him being a receiver, but he's watching all the vets in front of him, listening to what we tell him. He sees something work and he tries it himself and is figuring out what his tool set is and how he can best apply it."
Heading into this game, the Jets appear to have some issues in their secondary, an area the Patriots could exploit Sunday afternoon with their increasingly confident receiving corps.