In the second of my three-part series on the New England football Patriots, today we’re going to take a quick look at the WR position. Last year’s WR corps was notable for its lack of experience… or skill… or general forward progress. It was the first year in recent memory without a veteran holdover like Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Troy Brown, even guys like Danny Woodhead (despite the fact that he’s a RB) or Randy Moss (despite the fact that he’s a loon). In last year’s WR set it was rookies, Danny Amendola and the bright spot of the season, Julian Edelman. And as much as I like Edels and his prospects for the coming season, I don’t know that he would have found the space to flourish like he did if there had been other actual receiving talent on the team. Add into this youth movement a broken and incarcerated TE tandem that only a year before had looked like the next wave of the NFL’s future. Venerable superstars at the WR position have not been very plentiful in the Belichick era (the previously-mentioned loon and molly-popping Welker aside) but consistent, smart workers have always seemed to be rewarded by the Pats’ system and find their way to the top of the receiver depth chart. So the question before us is who will the system (and the Holy arm of Tom Freakin’ Brady) anoint for the 2014-5 season?
Sunday we got our first view of the passing game in its true form, so what did we learn? We saw that, as is his style, Tommy is going spread the ball around, with four different receivers registering 4 catches or more while four other receivers got their hands on the ball at least once. It was unsurprising to see Edelman leading the way, as his ability to run the underneath routes is crucial for marches down the field. The other bright spot for Pats fans and fantasy owners alike was the return of the Gronk Monster who pulled in 4 catches, one for an energizing second-quarter touchdown. The team was said to be limiting Rob Gronkowski’s play count, aiming to ease him back to full production but Brady’s excitement at the return his favorite target was apparent.
The one negative impression I did have of a receiver in Game 1 was Brandon LaFell – I thought he just looked plain bad. With a 3:0 penalty-to-reception ratio (despite being targeted 6 times), he often appeared behind the play and seemed to lack the focus required of Patriots receivers. We’ll see whether the season finds him grow into the system or get left behind like other talented veterans that have struggled in the Patriots offense (e.g. Brandon Lloyd, Joey Galloway and Chad ‘Ochocinco’ Johnson).
So what is it exactly that makes the Patriots system so difficult for receivers to pick up? We fans know that it has a lot to do with being on the same page as Brady but isn’t that true of every NFL team’s receivers and quarterback?
The Patriots run what’s called the Erhardt-Perkins offense, which works with a limited number of play formations but a multitude of reads for each play dependent on a number of factors like the defensive set, actions of individual defenders both before and after the snap, game situations like the down and distance, and others. What makes the style of offense so deadly is that the adjustments are sight adjustments, seen the same way by the quarterback and the receiver and made as the play evolves. In an article for Boston.com earlier this month, new receiver Brian Tyms had this to say about the complicated nature of New England’s passing game:
“Usually, in most offenses, the receiver’s job is simple. It’s like ‘okay, if it’s Cover 2, I’ve got this. If it’s off, I got this. If it’s man, I got this.’ But in this [Patriots’] offense, it’s like, ‘if this dude comes (on a blitz), I’ve got this. If the linebacker floats under me, I have this now. If it’s Cover 2, I have this that converts to this if the corner keeps funnelling with me.’ You’ve got to think as you go, man.”
Last year’s 4th-rd pick Josh Boyce was a casualty of the 53-man roster cut, along with Jeremy Gallon, while free agent signing Brian Tyms is serving a 4-game suspension to start the season for testing positive for Adderall. That leaves this year’s receiving crew looking rather similar to the one from a year ago, with draftees Thompkins and Dropson… err… Dobson, as well as free agent signing Danny Amendola all in their second year as Patriots. Amendola continues to underwhelm since signing with the team before the 2013-4 season, except in this training camp video where he makes a sick juggling catch. Many saw Amendola as the heir to Wes Welker’s slot receiver position, given the similarity in their builds and playing styles. Will the talent of which we saw flashes in his time with St. Louis blossom in 2014?
Finally, in a stunning move just before the start of the season, the Patriots acquired TE Tim Wright from Tampa Bay in the trade of Logan Mankins. Comparisons exist and are well-founded of Wright to former tight end and current murder suspect Aaron Hernandez, more akin to a wide receiver in many ways and providing a perfect contrast on two-TE sets. It may take a little while for him to fully grasp the Pats’ system but when he does I predict big things for Wright.
So where does this leave Tommy’s Targets as we kick off the new season? The same place as last season I’d say, with health concerns and questions about who will emerge from the pack, but with greater confidence and a year of experience building the chemistry of a new system. Off-season acquisitions (other than Wright) have added little to the mix so Brady will rely on Thompkins, Dobson and Amendola to continuously improve throughout the season, hopefully developing into a multi-weaponed offense rather than the grasping-at-straws unit that seem to characterize much of last season.