A year after trading a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu, a deal that provided little reward with the receiver quickly injured, the Patriots remain in the market for a pass catcher, league sources said, with the team's lingering lack of speed and ability in the downfield pass game still a prevailing issue.
Quarterback Cam Newton has continued to earn rave reviews, publicly and privately, within the organization for his approach, dedication and performance, but he's limited by the constant reshuffling that has been required along the offensive line and the lack of dependable options at receiver.
"Cam Newton is not the problem there, trust me," said one evaluator who has scouted the Patriots extensively. "It's who he has around him."
One scout who has advanced the Patriots diagnosed the problem with the offense.
"It's the same thing as it was before," the scout said. "(Julian) Edelman is slowing down and isn't going to give you the YAC like he could before. They don't get anything out of their tight ends at all in the passing game, and they don't do anything deep, because they can't. The line is all over the place from a personnel standpoint. There's only so much you can do with that cast of characters."
Sources said that sentiment is not lost on the Patriots, who once again have a very constricted and limited passing game, led by an aging Julian Edelman and not much else Newton can depend on. It's similar to what they faced a year ago with Tom Brady, only Newton's athleticism has helped the Patriots run the ball very effectively at times and move the pocket around. Newton has also been hampered by a lack of practice time due to a positive COVID-19 test, though I'm told he has been very sharp when able to practice.
Bill Belichick is very aware of the team's roster flaws on offense and has been one of the more aggressive figures in the trade market for years. The Vikings' Adam Thielen may be one option, Will Fuller of the Texans is a pure burner the likes of which the Patriots sorely lack, and Jets receiver Breshad Perriman has elite speed at a much lower price point (Jets tight end Chris Herndon is drawing interest from multiple teams as well, several executives said).
The Patriots stand at 2-3, and even in the best of times Belichick has a penchant for bold moves. The team has very few big money payroll commitments beyond 2020, with not a single player set to make more than $8 million next year on the current roster and with one of the lowest payroll projections in all of the NFL. That allows for a degree of flexibility to take on salary that Belichick has not often enjoyed, and the lack of athletic targets is clearly the glaring deficiency for a New England team that is still very much in the thick of the AFC East race despite its recent struggles.
Newton leads the team with 225 yards rushing -- nearly 100 more than anyone else -- and Edelman leads them with just 20 receptions (an average of just four per game) and 302 yards (just over 60 per game). Patriots tight ends have amassed six catches for 82 yards all season. They have just three receiving touchdowns on the season and just one pass play over 30 yards. Newton actually ranks seventh on the team with 16 receiving yards and New England has had to rely on trick plays with Edelman throwing the ball to try to generate some downfield thrust.
"It's the worst group of skill players in the NFL, and you should probably put skill players in quotes," said one NFL executive who has faced the Patriots. "That has to be the slowest offense in the league."
Belichick, who signed Antonio Brown a year ago when in this position before trading for Sanu, has about a week to find an upgrade, and it would surprise his peers if he didn't make a move or two to that end.