By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- After the past calendar year, nothing Bill Belichick does with his personnel should surprise you anymore. There's a chance he's currently preparing to make a move that would pull the rug out from under fans across the region. The kind of move that would initially make you scratch your head. The kind of move that would set Twitter and sports media ablaze.
He did it before the start of the 2016 season with Chandler Jones, which should have been anticipated. He did it again during the 2016 season when he traded Jamie Collins, which nobody saw coming.
He could doing it again this offseason, and the candidate could be one Julian Francis Edelman.
This is, of course, pure speculation about the Patriots' future front office dealings, which only Belichick himself knows for sure. But as a calculated observation based on the moves that the Patriots have made (and not made) since winning Super Bowl LI in February, it appears that if Belichick pulls his latest surprise trade, it will be Edelman who is on his way out.
Take the Patriots' growing depth chart at the wide receiver position. On Wednesday they agreed to a deal with former Brown and Bengal Andrew Hawkins, who is primarily a slot receiver. The 31-year-old Hawkins is far from a guarantee to make the 53-man roster as a mid-May addition, but he's not the only wideout added to the roster this offseason.
After the draft, the Patriots signed undrafted free-agent receivers Austin Carr and Jacob Hollister. Carr, in particular, was one of the more highly touted receiver prospects among the undrafted class and could be a perfect fit in New England. They also recently signed 25-year-old DeAndrew White off the practice squad. They claimed former Colts wideout Devin Street off waivers on May 2, and 2016 seventh-round pick Devin Lucien remains with the team as part of the practice squad. (UPDATE: According to Field Yates, the Patriots are waiving Street in order to make room for Hawkins.)
And those are just the lower-level names on the receiver depth chart. The biggest, most surprising move of the offseason (so far) came when the Patriots traded their 2016 first- and third-round picks to the Saints for receiver Brandin Cooks and the Saints' fourth-round pick. Cooks, 23, is one of the most dynamic young receivers in the NFL and figures to assume a significant role in the already-crowded Patriots offense. Cooks joins Chris Hogan, who made plenty of big catches for the Patriots in the playoffs, and promising second-year wideout Malcolm Mitchell as notable receivers to join the team in the past 15 months.
Not to mention, there's still Danny Amendola, who recently restructured his contract in order to stay with the team, and special teams ace Matthew Slater, who counts on the roster as a receiver. In all, the Patriots will likely carry a whopping 11 receivers into training camp. By comparison, they currently carry 15 offensive linemen.
The signs don't end with the Patriots' roster; it extends to their financial moves, too. Amendola restructured his deal. Rob Gronkowski also restructured, with a chance to become the highest-paid tight end in the game. A new deal for Dont'a Hightower. An extension for James White.
But for Edelman? Nothing. No salary bump. No extension. Not so much as a stray report of a negotiation.
The most important details, of course, come down to Edelman himself. The 31-year-old is entering the final season of a four-year deal he signed with the Patriots in 2014. If he were to carry any kind of trade value for the Patriots, it would be now. It would be this season.
Belichick has become known for moving on from players early rather than late, and Edelman would probably qualify as a player jettisoned while still at the height of his powers. He remains one of the most productive receivers on the team (when he's on the field) and perhaps Tom Brady's most trusted target. There's no clear replacement for him at the slot receiver spot if he were to depart.
However, ESPN's Mike Reiss on Wednesday noted Edelman as one of four "locks" (along with Cooks, Hogan, and Mitchell) to make the roster at the receiver position in 2017. So it's quite possible that Edelman will play out his deal, or at least start the season in New England. But even so, the Patriots would not be left empty-handed if Edelman were to sign elsewhere as a free agent, and Belichick just proved back in October that he'd be willing to move a major piece in the middle of the season if he felt it was best for the football team.
If there's any position where Belichick has set himself up to withstand the loss of a major piece, it's wide receiver. Amendola could fill in at the slot, and even Cooks could have the skill set to play that role. Hogan and Mitchell don't appear to be in any danger of losing their roster spots. And between Hawkins, Carr, White, Street, and Lucien, Belichick has gathered more than enough lottery tickets with a chance to hit on at least one of them.
The Patriots are also set pretty well at tight end, with Rob Gronkowski back in the fold and Dwayne Allen backing him up. The running back position is as well-stocked as ever, with Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead joining White, Dion Lewis, and Brandon Bolden. Even if the Patriots kept Edelman and No. 11 got injured, the Patriots offense likely wouldn't collapse without him.
If another slot receiver, particularly Hawkins or Carr, pans out in training camp, that could only further the possibility that Edelman is on his way out.
It would be an unfortunate sight for Patriots fans to see Edelman depart. He's been an absolute warrior on the field for the Patriots in each of their last two Super Bowl wins, a devoted Belichick soldier who has worked his way up from a seventh-round pick and converted quarterback to arguably the best slot receiver in the NFL.
But professional football, as Belichick painfully reminds everyone year after year, is a business, and the Patriots are more ruthless than any other team in the league when it comes to business. Belichick will inevitably need to make a tough decision to move on from a viable receiver as he whittles the roster down to 53.
It could be Edelman that ends up on the receiving end of that decision.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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