One of the best aspects to Wes Welker’s game is his ability to consistently get yards after the catch. With the Patriots, the undersized slot receiver was one of the best in the league when it came to piling up the YAC. In his six seasons, 3,931 of his 7,459 receiving yards during the regular season came after the catch, or 53 percent.
Overall, of his six seasons in New England, he was first in the league in YAC four times (including a career-high 751 yards in 2008, as well as 702 last year) and second twice. (The only time he wasn’t in the top two? That was 2010, when his 411 YAC was 15th in the league.) His ability to find seams in a defense and keep the chains moving was one of the reasons the New England passing game has had such an unfettered run of success the last few seasons.
When it comes to YAC, there are so many variables -- spacing among the pass-catchers, route-running ability and quarterback vision all come into play. When it comes to credit, it really boils down to a chicken-and-the-egg argument: Is it the receiver who should get credit because he’s able to manufacture extra yardage on his own? Or is it because the quarterback has the ability to put the ball in the best place possible that allows a receiver to pick up additional real estate? The one thing we know for sure is that most of the time, it’s the result of extraordinary chemistry between the quarterback and receiver, borne out of an ability to know exactly what the other needs and when. In New England, the partnership between Welker and Tom Brady was the result of thousands of passes between the two as they honed their on-field relationship to a fine edge, one that resulted in one of the most productive quarterback-receiver partnerships in NFL history.
It’s worth mentioning that of all of Brady’s targets, historically, the ones he has favored the most are YAC guys. Brady has completed more than 250 passes to four different receivers over the course of his career -- Welker (563), Deion Branch (328), Troy Brown (323) and Kevin Faulk (310) -- and while official YAC totals only go back as far as 2007, it’s safe to say that all of those receivers showed an ability to produce a sizable portion of their receiving yards after the catch. (In 2007 and 2008, Faulk was second on the team in YAC after Welker.)
But Welker has taken his YAC totals to Denver, signing a two-year deal with the Broncos. And when you look at the Patriots passing game in totality, it’s important to keep in mind that it wasn’t just Welker’s YAC numbers New England lost this offseason. Of the 446 receiving yards running back Danny Woodhead accounted for in 2012 (on 40 catches), 378 of those came after the catch. When you add that total to Brandon Lloyd (192 YAC) and Branch (47), that comes to 1,319 yards after the catch that departed New England this offseason -- 27 percent of the total passing yardage Brady accounted for last season.
Can the Patriots replace that? When it comes to the four new veteran receivers on the roster -- Mike Jenkins, Donald Jones, Danny Amendola and Lavelle Hawkins -- only Amendola has the sort of YAC numbers that make you sit up and take notice. Last year, Amendola had 666 total receiving yards, with 263 coming after the catch. That’s on the heels of an impressive 2010, when 374 of his 689 receiving yards came after the catch.
As for the rest of the newcomers, Donald Jones has perhaps shown the most ability to account for some substantial yards after the catch, as the former Bills receiver had a career-best 188 YAC last season with Buffalo. (He had 443 total receiving yards.) Meanwhile, 140 of the 449 receiving yards compiled by Jenkins last season came as a result of YAC, and Hawkins had just five catches last season and accounted for eight yards after catch.
Of course, as we saw when it came to the Brady-Welker dynamic and its ability to produce YAC, much of that work was done in the offseason, building a chemistry as the quarterback and received honed their connection and learned exactly what the other one needed to maximize the YAC. To that end, Amendola and Brady spent a lot of time together in Tuesday’s OTA session. The quarterback spent an extended portion of the practice working with Amendola (as well as some time with Jenkins) in hopes of strengthening a bond that began earlier this spring with some work together on the campus at USC.
“He’s a really good quarterback. Everybody knows that. [I’m] just trying to get on the same page -- so far, so good,” Amendola said. “More work is best going into the season. Any time you get a jump and get to work with each other, that’s good. We’re getting a lot of good work in here right now. That’s the most important thing.”
(One note when you are talking about the rookie receivers: While the NCAA doesn’t keep track of YAC totals, it is interesting to scour YouTube for highlights of New England's rookie receivers, particularly fourth-round draft pick Josh Boyce and undrafted free agent T.J. Moe, both of whom showed a real ability to work in traffic and pick up extra yards after a reception.)
However, the X factor, as is the case on multiple levels this year when it comes to the New England passing game, could be at tight end. When healthy, both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have shown an ability to flourish in the open field. In particular, Gronkowski has put up some excellent YAC numbers over the course of his relatively brief career. In 2011, he was sixth in the league, as 656 of his 1,327 receiving yards came after the catch. That same season, Hernandez wasn’t too far off the pace, as his 519 YAC was ninth in the league and represented more than half of his 910 receiving yards. If either one -- or both -- are healthy, history says they should be able to make up the difference.
There are two other possibilities to help pick up the slack. First, new tight end Jake Ballard showed a proficiency to pick up extra yardage in his one full season in the NFL. In 2011 with the Giants, he finished with 39 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns, to go along with 191 yards after catch. It’s not in the Gronkowski/Welker neighborhood, but it shows a certain promise, and if he continues on that track he could improve on those totals in 2013.
Second, running back Shane Vereen is expected to take over many of Woodhead’s old duties, and that includes work as the third-down, changeup guy out of the backfield. In extremely limited action in that role last year, Vereen flourished and showed a real flair of picking up yards after the catch. In fact, of any pass-catcher who had at least 100 yards receiving on the New England roster last season, he had the highest percentage of total YAC -- he ended the season with 149 receiving yards, and an impressive 141 of those came after the catch. (The bulk of those yards came on an 83-yard catch and run against the Jets on Thanksgiving when he took a pass from Brady out of the backfield and outraced the field all the way to the end zone.)
Of course, YAC doesn’t necessarily translate to a successful season. Of the top 10 teams in the league last season when it came to compiling yards after the catch, just four of them made the playoffs (Patriots, Packers, Falcons and Broncos), while teams like the Lions, Raiders, Eagles and Browns also were in the top 10.
But when you consider the fundamental elements of the New England passing game, as well as the fact that there are no traditional deep threats on the roster, it figures that the pass-catchers will be counted on produce after the catch once again in 2013. If the Patriots tight ends are healthy and productive, it really shouldn’t be an issue. And in the case of Brady and Welker, by the end of the 2013 season, we should have a pretty good answer as to who made who when it came to YAC in New England.