FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For the past two months, the Patriots have been in talent-collection mode.
Now they’ll start to figure out exactly how — or if — the pieces fit.
Only two players return from a pass-catching corps that helped the Patriots capture their sixth Lombardi Trophy: Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman and fifth-year pro Phillip Dorsett.
The rest of the crew is to be determined. Josh Gordon could be back, although the NFL recently said it does not have an update regarding the length of Gordon’s suspension. Demaryius Thomas was signed, but he’s recovering from a December Achilles tear. First-round pick N’Keal Harry will be a factor.
And then there’s a group of unheralded receivers. Perhaps the most intriguing is Dontrelle Inman, who emerged down the stretch with the Colts a year ago.
His ascension within the Indianapolis offense was remarkable. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Inman wasn’t even in an NFL training camp last summer. He signed with the Colts in mid-October, and by the end of the season he was Andrew Luck’s No. 2 receiver. In the team’s final four games, including the playoffs, Inman caught 17 passes on 19 targets for 231 yards and three touchdowns.
“My whole career I’ve always battled,” said Inman, who enters his fifth NFL season after beginning his career in the CFL. “I always believed in myself to be the best I can be. So (the performance with the Colts) helped. I wouldn’t sit there and sugarcoat it and say it didn’t help. It’s always good to have tape, film, no matter what it is, for teams to look at you and you want you.”
Inman remained a free agent for over two months, but the Patriots did indeed want him. They reportedly forked over $400,000 in guaranteed money to get Inman into camp. At Thursday’s OTA, he was running alongside Edelman and Dorsett in three-receiver sets. He’ll have a legitimate shot to carve out a role.
In most circumstances, a veteran free agent signed in May has little chance of making the 53-man roster. According to transaction history on Patriots.com, the club has signed 17 veteran free agents in the month of May dating back to the 2012 offseason. Only one of them — defensive tackle Anthony Johnson in 2016 — made the 53-man roster. By that measure, Inman, who inked an agreement with the Patriots on May 10, faces long odds.
But the 30-year-old Inman was never concerned about spending two months as a free agent.
“At this stage of your career, you’ve played long enough to know the process, how things work,” Inman said. “Some guys go down. Some teams have needs early on. Some teams have needs later. Being panicked or anything like that, no.”
Inman’s proven ability to catch on quickly, as he demonstrated last season in his rapid rise up the Colts depth chart, should help. The Patriots offense is famously complex. Rookie receivers can often become overwhelmed, and even veteran wideouts often struggle to fit in.
This will be Inman’s fourth NFL stop. He initially latched on with the Chargers, spending two years under offensive coordinator Frank Reich. Following a breakout third season (58 receptions for 810 yards), he was traded to the Bears. Inman reconnected with Reich in Indianapolis this past season.
There’s no doubt that the Patriots offense will provide its own challenges, but Inman remains confident that he’ll adjust quickly.
“It’s a top-notch organization,” Inman said. “Concepts are concepts. Football is football. Names change, but you’re still running the same thing. Everybody in the league, it’s a copycat league, everybody runs the same thing.”
A smooth route-runner with a large catch radius, Inman quickly forged connections with Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck in his previous stops. Next up is Tom Brady and a traditionally dominant Patriots offense that heads into the summer with a lot to sort out.