Josh Gordon has been reinstated, again. The NFL announced on Friday the troubled wideout has been given permission to return to team facilities and can play in games starting in Week 4 of the preseason. Gordon had previously been suspended by the league last December for violating the terms of his previous reinstatement, although the circumstances leading up to his suspension remain murky.
To say Gordon’s return will help the New England Patriots’ offense is an understatement. His presence completely alters the offensive identity of their team as it’s currently constructed. Before the league’s announcement, the Patriots had only one player who could be considered an X receiver who primarily plays outside the hashmarks, and he’s also a rookie. N'Keal Harry seems to have what it takes to be a consistent presence outside, but rookie receivers historically have struggled to pick up New England’s complicated offense, and it would have been a lot to ask of a rookie to be Tom Brady’s main option on the outside.
Philip Dorsett spent a good chunk of his time on the outside in 2018, but listed at only 5’10” and 179 pounds, he’ll always struggle against bigger corners playing press coverage. Rob Gronkowski had been their answer to that type of coverage for the last eight years, but he’s long gone now. Demariyus Thomas will likely start the season on the PUP list, and he’s coming off an Achilles tear. The camp standouts (Jakobi Meyers and Maurice Harris) both operate best from the slot. Dontrelle Inman has the size and speed to play effectively outside, but he hasn’t shown much in practice yet and isn’t a lock to make the final 53 by any means.
With these roster weaknesses in mind, the Patriots were (and still are, to a lesser extent) planning to heavily lean on their running backs for offensive production. Sony Michel has reportedly expanded his game to become an option out of the backfield, and pairing him with James White gives Josh McDanielsoptions upon options. But even with Brady under center and an above-average offensive line, their ceiling was lower than one usually expects from a Patriots unit, and they had no explosive threats.
Gordon will fill that X receiver role he left open after his suspension, and provide an explosive threat unmatched by anyone on the team right now. The key to success is to keep the defense guessing, and a dangerous X receiver will open up many options. Teams can’t keep most of their guys within ten yards of the line of scrimmage like they would have if it were only Harry, Julian Edelman, and Dorsett as the top three options. He’ll fulfill the duty of man-coverage beater outside the hashmarks that even Edelman would have trouble doing on a regular basis. He’s the key that unlocks everything New England wants to do, and his return changes everything.