Dorsett's night encouraging, but questions remain for Patriots at wideout

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CHARLOTTE -- Phillip Dorsett didn't even really have a locker. 

One was assigned to him, of course. But with the visitor's room at Bank of America Stadium crowded by almost 90 Patriots, players claimed slivers of space for themselves wherever they could. Dorsett's was a few feet from the buffet, up against a wall, his clothes hanging on a black plastic chair. 

It wasn't exactly befitting of a man who will be the No. 2 receiver for the Patriots when the regular season begins. But that looks like the role Dorsett will take on come September, especially after the night he had against the Panthers. 

The Patriots lost their third preseason game, 25-14, but Dorsett was a bright spot with four catches on four targets for 36 yards. Tom Brady turned to him with almost a quarter of his throws, and he did so in some critical situations. 

Dorsett caught a quick-hitter and scampered up the sideline for 16. He caught a pass on an awkward route that had to be adjusted based on a hot route run by one of his teammates. Then he reeled in a fourth-down attempt from Brady that showed some real faith. 

"He trusted me, and we made the play," Dorsett said. "Knew it was coming. He was playing off. Gave me a hitch. Ran the hitch and converted. It's a big thing. I feel like we just gotta keep going. I'm growing every day here. I think I can keep rolling."

"Phil did a good job," Brady said. "He made some good plays. He's done a good job through the spring and through training camp. He's been dependable when he's been out there and it's been great to watch. We got him late last year, and I think he's just been grinding it out, trying to find a role, and I think he's done a great job."

With Julian Edelman scheduled to serve his four-game suspension through the first month of the season, Dorsett knows he'll have to be conditioned to play a great deal of snaps -- and sometimes play a great deal of snaps consecutively. 

The offensive regulars for the Patriots put together a 14-play drive in the second quarter that resulted in a field goal thanks in part to an unnecessary roughness penalty picked up by LaAdrian Waddle that pushed them back. The result wasn't ideal, but the conditioning was good.

"That was one of the main focuses for me was being out there and trying to string along a long drive," Dorsett said, reporters crowding around his island of stuff. 

"I know in the regular season, we're going to be out there for long drives. That's what we do. Some teams aren't going to give you the deep ball so you're going to have to dink and dunk down the field. Building that stamina, being on the field every play, that's one thing I try to focus on."

He's going to have to be ready to work. Dorsett looks like he'll be the biggest beneficiary workload-wise during Edelman's suspension. He and Chris Hogan will man the top-two receiver spots, while Rob Gronkowski and James White will be the old reliables at tight end and running back, respectively. 

It's a big spot for a player who was the clear No. 4 at his position (431 snaps, playoffs included) in 2017, catching just 14 passes. But night's like Friday will help Dorsett's cause because they're confidence-builders. 

"I think that's how you earn the trust of your coaches and teammates is to do it under real live circumstances," Brady said, "with play-clocks and situations and signals and we're gonna have to all be on the same page. We have to work hard on it, and we have two weeks to figure out who's gonna be out there doing it and try to go out do better each day in the meantime."

What the Patriots do in the meantime at receiver is anyone's guess. As encouraging as Dorsett's night was, it's still asking a lot for him to serve as a top-two wideout. And that ask is an indication of just how thin the depth chart is at that spot. 

Cordarrelle Patterson looks like the next best bet to see targets from Brady. He reeled off 10 yards on a crossing route and another target sent his way fell incomplete. The incompletion, though, may have served as an indication of how he and Brady still aren't quite synched-up. Brady tried to hit Patterson at his spot wide on the line of scrimmage, but Patterson started to slant off the line, and the pass sailed high and behind its target. 

Patterson averages about three touches per game for his career and looks like he may be the same type of player in New England. After him, it'd be hard to find a trustworthy option among the receiver bunch. 

The Eric Decker experiment remains a fruitless one. He didn't see a single snap with Brady, and when he got in for the third quarter, he quickly committed a false start penalty. Decker later appeared to miss a block on a receiver screen that saw Riley McCarron dropped for a loss. 

McCarron was the one getting time in four-receiver sets over Decker, and he was out as the team's top punt-returner. Both of those things are good arguments for him to make the 53-man roster as a depth option, but he dropped two passes against the Panthers and got rocked late on a hit that seemed to have him wobbly. 

Braxton Berrios remains out injured. Devin Lucien didn't play until deep into the second half. Paul Turner remains down the depth chart. 

It would be all well and good to say the Patriots will make up for their receiver depth with depth at other spots, but those spots are hurting too. Sony Michel is still down. Same goes for Rex Burkhead. Jacob Hollister is dealing with an injury that kept him out of action in Carolina. 

Brady's had more to work with other years at this point in the summer. 

Yes, Gronkowski is still a force. Yes, White and Hogan are dependable options. And yes, Dorsett looks like he's inching closer to Brady's circle of trust. 

But there's a lot the Patriots need to get cleaned up before the regular season begins, and Brady's going to need more than those four to do it. 

"Our execution needs to be better," he said. "You look back at a lot of the things I thought about the whole second half. All the things we need to do. And it's a lot of us. It's not so much what the other team is doing, although that's a very good defense. Our base execution needs to be better."

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