Bill Belichick was a big fan of Josh Gordon back in 2013. A 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound receiver, Gordon could do it all.
“He’s a great player,” Belichick said before a Week 14 game against the Browns that year. “He can attack all three levels of the defense. He can run through them, he can take the short plays, catch-and-run plays, crossing patterns, quick three-step drops and break tackles. He’s very good on the intermediate routes, the in-cuts, the crossing routes, comebacks, stop-routes, things that attack the middle levels of the defense. He’s a complete player that can run fast, catch, big target and make a lot of yards on his own after the catch with his speed, size, and running ability.”
Boy, did Gordon prove Belichick right. He caught seven passes for 151 yards and a touchdown that week against the Patriots, plus a 34-yard run on an end-around.
Gordon almost led the Browns to an upset victory, losing 27-26 at Gillette Stadium (this Tom Brady comeback was almost as miraculous as Super Bowl LI).
Gordon’s talents were on full display on an 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter. He took a quick slant and galloped more than 70 yards to the end zone, outracing Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty.
“He’s a very explosive player,” Belichick said in that same pregame interview. “He makes a significant amount of yardage after he’s got the ball in his hands, but he also makes a lot of yardage down the field, too. He’s a really hard guy to defend because they do so many things with him, and you have to defend him at all three levels of the defense. Depending on what coverage or what type of coverage you’re in, that can stress everybody. It’s not just really one guy.”
But that was then. What about now?
The Patriots acquired Gordon in a trade on Monday for a fifth-round pick. He’s 27 now, and hasn’t played much football since 2013 — just five games in 2014, five games in 2017, and one game in 2018. He has missed 69 of his last 80 games because of suspensions and other off-field issues. The Browns finally grew tired of Gordon last weekend, when he pulled a hamstring in a promotional event and was unavailable for the Browns’ loss to the Saints. Gordon reportedly is healthy enough to play for the Patriots.
To get a feel for what type of player the Patriots are getting, we flipped on the All-22 tape of Gordon’s six most recent games — his Week 1 performance against the Steelers, and the five games he appeared in at the end of last season. The games from 2013 and 2014 are fun to watch, but don’t seem relevant now given the time Gordon spent away from football.
The verdict? Gordon is still a beast. His physical skills are incredible.
If Gordon can keep his head on straight — and that’s a major “if” — the Patriots just acquired a physically dominant receiver the likes of which they have only seen from Rob Gronkowski. Gordon combines Gronk’s size and physicality with Randy Moss’s speed and deep ball ability. Here’s also betting he’s a decent run blocker, given his size. I definitely understand why Belichick was willing to trade for him.
The Patriots’ offense is famously tough to learn. Gordon might only have a small package of plays, especially in the first few weeks. But Gordon can absolutely contribute meaningfully to the Patriots’ offense. And what he brings to an offense doesn’t need to be taught — it’s instinctive.
I see three different ways in which Gordon can contribute immediately:
Gordon’s most impressive ability is to catch a short pass and pick up yards after catch – a staple of the Patriots’ offense. The 80-yarder against New England in 2013 is his best example, but he had several impressive plays in his 2017-18 stint.
The Browns sent him on a bevy of crossing routes to take advantage of his catch-and-run abilities. In Week 13 against the Chargers, he ran an intermediate square-in, caught the pass over the middle, and picked up an additional 15 yards with an impressive display of speed and power as he stiff-armed through the defensive back.
In Week 17 against the Steelers, he caught a shallow cross over the middle, and showed great vision and timing with his blockers to pick up 33 yards down the sideline.
Gordon had two other impressive catch-and-runs in his 2017 stint, as well. He gets up-field in a hurry, and is tough to bring down. Not many receivers possess his size and physicality.
Gordon may not be able to learn the Patriots’ entire playbook, but they can tell him, “Go run a slant, then run with the ball.” The play-action, back-side slant pass on first down is one of the Patriots’ favorite plays, and Gordon will look great in that role.
Gordon is bigger than almost every cornerback, and can still go up and catch the ball in traffic. His 17-yard touchdown catch against the Steelers in Week 1 was a beauty — he ran a sideline fade, came down with a jump ball over the cornerback, and tapped both feet inside the pylon for a touchdown.
Gronk is the only other Patriots receiver who can catch a jump ball. This will add an important element to their red zone offense.
Gordon isn’t afraid to go over the middle — in fact, it’s a big part of his game. He lined up in the slot a significant amount in the Browns’ offense — an element that will play well for the Patriots — and made several tough catches over the middle. He had an impressive 18-yard catch against the Ravens last year, in which he dragged the defender an extra 8 yards.
He also had a beautiful catch on a 50-50 ball against the Chargers last year.
Gordon definitely doesn’t come down with every contested catch, but he’s physical and tough, and can use his big frame to box out the defense.
Gordon also can go deep and catch the home run ball, like he did on a 54-yarder against the Steelers last year.
He’s fast enough to get behind the defense, and strong enough to out-muscle the cornerback for the ball.
He’ll go deep from the outside or slot position, making him a dynamic threat that Josh McDaniels can use all across the formation. You don’t need to learn a thick playbook in order to run deep and catch a bomb.
Gordon certainly isn’t perfect. His catch rate was disappointing — 19 catches on 45 targets for 352 yards and a touchdown over his six games in 2017-18.
But this was with DeShone Kizer and Tyrod Taylor throwing him the ball. Now he has Brady.
Get your popcorn ready. Assuming Gordon can stay on the field, this should be fun to watch.