Perry: What does Sanu's release say about Patriots offense? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
FOXBORO -- Mohamed Sanu is out for a variety of reasons. But what are they? Who fills in behind him? And what might we be able to infer about the Patriots offensive philosophy following his departure?
Follow the money. Hard to have a roster-move discussion without including it. Especially with the Patriots. With this story, it probably deserves to be the lede.
Sanu was set to make $6.5 million in cash as part of the deal he signed with the Falcons prior to arriving via trade last season, the same amount Marvin Jones of the Lions and Sterling Shepard of the Giants were set to haul in. Julian Edelman, meanwhile, will pull down $4.5 million in cash in 2020.
For a receiver like Sanu -- who did not project to have a special-teams role and looked like the No. 4 wideout in camp, for what could be a run-heavy offense -- that's pricey. He landed on our most recent 53-man roster projection for the Patriots, but more so because of the draft-pick investment the team made in acquiring him last season. Turns out Bill Belichick was ready to cut ties despite spending a second-round selection to get Sanu less than a year ago.
WHO'S THE NEXT MAN UP?
Why did the dollar amount not match up with the role? Why was Sanu set to be the No. 4 receiver, you ask?
His camp was lackluster from what reporters were able to watch through two weeks of practices. He had difficulty separating in one-on-one situations, finding himself in tight coverage by young players like Joejuan Williams and Michael Jackson at times. In team drills, he wasn't a consistently-open option.
Sanu's value was, in part, in his ability to play a variety of roles. But this summer it seemed clear that he was not fit to serve on the interior in the Patriots offense even though that's where he had extensive experience previously in his career.
Often relying on shifty pass-catchers to get open quickly from the slot, the Patriots seemed to have a better option there in Gunner Olszewski behind Julian Edelman. Like Edelman, Olszewski -- who has been praised by teammates and coaches alike this summer for changing his body in the offseason -- looks like he could have some positional versatility to play inside or out. He's a still-developing player with an intriguing athletic profile.
So the Olszewski-for-Sanu swap -- particularly since Olszewski has some punt-return experience -- made more sense from a financial and up-side perspective.
But Olszewski still might not find himself in the top three on the Patriots receiver depth chart. In terms of the hierarchy at that position, it looks like Damiere Byrd could end up taking the No. 3 receiver role Sanu might've had in 11-personnel packages for Josh McDaniels.
Byrd gives the Patriots something they didn't get from Sanu: down-the-field speed. Though the fifth-year veteran doesn't have an extensive backlog of experience -- 44 catches for 488 yards in 28 games -- he clocked a 4.3-second 40-yard dash coming out of South Carolina in 2016 and competed for the Gamecocks track team as a sprinter.
Of course, Byrd doesn't need to be the second coming of Randy Moss to make an impact on the offense this season. He only needs to threaten the deep portion of the field in order to force defenses to "defend every blade of grass," a mantra the Patriots offense has espoused for years.
And in practice, Byrd had plenty of positive moments to prove that job is within his capabilities. Early in camp made a deep sliding catch on a Jarrett Stidham throw that didn't have quite enough on it after Byrd got behind Jason McCourty. Later that same day, he caught a deep-out laser from Cam Newton that was well-placed on the sideline with J.C. Jackson in coverage. The next day, Byrd got Jackson -- one of the best players in camp on either side of the ball -- in a one-on-one period when he caught a contested pass deep down the middle after getting a step on the talented corner. A week later Byrd acknowledged, "it's all starting to come together" for him in terms of picking up the offense.
With Oszewski as the younger (and less expensive) versatile option off the bench, and with Byrd as the deep (and less expensive) option, the Patriots have two lesser known receivers to help fill in after Sanu's loss. But both players will likely have more defined roles -- at less than half the cost this season ($2.28 million combined) -- than the veteran who has departed.
One of the reasons that may have contributed to the Patriots parting with a more expensive veteran receiver is that they may de-emphasize the position to a certain extent in 2020.
If they choose to go heavy this season, their third receiver -- which would've been a best-case scenario for Sanu behind Edelman and N'Keal Harry -- might not see starter-level snaps. With only five eligible receivers on the field on any given play, the Patriots could find themselves with two true wideouts on the field more often than in 2019 if they alter their approach.
Last season the Patriots ran three-receiver sets on 54 percent of their snaps, which was relatively low compared to the league as a whole, which used 11-personnel packages on 60 percent of snaps. Only seven teams used three receivers on the field less often than the Patriots.
But there's still room for the Patriots to turn to two-back or two-tight end sets even more often. Some of the best and brightest offensive minds in football -- including those in Baltimore and San Francisco, the two top-scoring teams in the NFL last season -- have embraced heavier personnel packages in order to exploit defenses.
The Niners, with do-it-all fullback Kyle Jusczyzk, led the NFL in two-back percentage last season (40 percent of offensive snaps). The Ravens and their unique run-heavy attack used two backs or two tight ends (or three tight ends!) on more than half their offensive snaps to help pave the way for MVP Lamar Jackson.
The Vikings (No. 8 in scoring in 2019) had two backs on the field for exactly one third of their offensive plays and had two tight ends on the field for 34 percent of their plays. Minnesota used three receivers a league-low 25 percent of the time. Tennessee (No. 10 in scoring) had multiple tight ends on the field for 44 percent of their plays last season.
The idea? Use your best players, of course. But those bigger offensive huddles also encourage defensive coordinators to get bigger defensive players on the field to protect against the run. Offensive play-callers then exploit those poor pass defenders with ease. The Titans, Niners and Vikings all landed in the top six in yards per attempt last season. The Ravens were 12th.
The Patriots have invested heavily at running back. They traded up for two tight ends in the draft. They have two fullbacks on their roster. If they choose to go to a power-rushing and play-action attack with Newton at the controls, then employing a No. 3 or 4 receiver at $6.5 million to play in about half the team's snaps wasn't going to make much sense.