Deion Branch isn't walking through that door. Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney aren't walking through that door. And if they do, they're going to be … ah, you probably know the rest.
Well, probably not walking through that door. When it comes to the Patriots, you're never completely shutting the door on anyone. (Except maybe Lloyd, who is too busy making zombie movies to contemplate a return to the NFL.) But given the current direction of the franchise, it's highly unlikely you're going to see any sort of free agent pickups for New England at the wide receiver position. Instead, in the short term, it's going to be all about the kids, at least until Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen return.
Through the first two games of the 2013 season, this Patriots offense has revealed itself to be unlike anything we've seen in the Tom Brady era. Stripped of so many of the elements that made it one of the best passing games in the league the last few seasons, New England has been forced to rely on rookie pass catchers more than any other year under the star quarterback.
While the target stat can be an occasional inexact statistic, used with total snaps it provides an excellent look into the overall involvement of first-year receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. Through two games, Thompkins been targeted 21 times and is on pace for 168 targets on the year. Dobson is on pace for 80 targets. (To give you some perspective, Wes Welker led last year's team with 174 targets.)
While that's not likely -- you have to figure their numbers will drop when Gronkowski, Amendola and Vereen return to full strength -- it should be enough to set a new mark for rookie involvement for a wide receiver in New England. Since 2009, only three rookie pass catchers had at least 50 targets: Hernandez (64 in 2010), Gronkowski (59 in 2010) and Edelman (54 in 2009).
(A statistical note: Targets were first kept by NFL statisticians in 2009, and so there's no way of knowing who might have been Brady's favorite receiver from 2001 through 2008, but it's a safe bet the only rookie receiver who might have topped 50 targets in a year in that span was Branch, who had 43 catches in 2002.)
As for total snaps, Thompkins has seen a heavy workload. According to Pro Football Focus, he's played 146 of a possible 161 offensive snaps over the first two games. (He's second on the team among receivers to Julian Edelman, who has 148.) Dobson, who sat out the opener, has played 34. In all, it's added up to six catches for 89 yards for Thompkins, and three catches for 56 yards and a touchdown for Dobson.
None of these numbers are to suggest that the rookies will be able to keep up that sort of pace over a 16-game season, but it gives you some idea of how much the Patriots are going to rely on them while Gronkowski, Amendola and Vereen are sidelined.
The quarterback certainly seems resigned to the fact that, at least in the short term, the team is going to sink or swim with the rookies.
"We have a long way to go," Brady said with a sigh after Thursday's win over the Jets. "No one’s coming to rescue and save the day, so we’ve just got to fight through it and have got to work harder and do better and try to be more consistent."
When asked about the expectation level for the rookies -- not just Thompkins and Dobson, but the class as a whole -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the evolutionary process is different for each player.
"Some guys go at different rates -- I’ve learned that through a lot of experience," Belichick said. "Some players start quickly and fizzle out. Some players start slowly and come on strong. Some players are more steady than others. You really don’t know that until their rookie season is over, what the rate is or how it’s all going to turn out. You just take it day to day, get better on a daily basis and teach them all the things that you can teach them, get them the practice time you can practice them with, correct all the mistakes and keep moving forward."
(The desire to "go out and get a receiver" at this stage of the season is understandable, particularly when you're talking about reuniting Brady with the likes of old friends like Branch, Donte' Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney or even Lloyd. But there's a difference between bringing in someone who knows the system and adding real substance to the New England passing game. There's a level of familiarity there, but it's debatable how much any of those over-30 receivers have left in the tank. Frankly, those clamoring for a reunion of the 2007-2012 receiving corps are like classic rock fans pining for the Beatles. It would be nice to have a return of the good old days, but nothing exists in a vacuum. You want Sgt. Pepper, but in truth, with the passage of time, all that's left is "Beatlemania.")
This reliance on rookies receivers is rare for the Patriots. From 2007 through 2012, it was understood the Patriots would be able to plug in (mostly) veteran receivers into the passing game, and they would be off to the races. In most cases, the young receivers were stuck behind the veterans -- they didn't get the practice reps, and frankly, the New England offense wasn't as effective when they were on the field in place of the vets. Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, Bethel Johnson and Chad Jackson now are footnotes from the last decade of the Patriots passing game.
The most notable exception to the rule was Edelman. Through a series of unique circumstances, the former college quarterback was able to elbow his way into a starting role as a rookie in 2009, and while he's taken a few steps back over the years (primarily because of health issues, as well as the fact that the passing game became more tight end-centric the last few years), he's now the lone holdover at the receiver spot, having outlasted Randy Moss and Welker. He's also the lone bright spot the Patriots can point to when it comes to drafting and developing wide receivers over the last 10 years: Heading into the 2013 season, the eight receivers the Patriots drafted between 2003 and 2012 accounted for a combined 165 career catches in the NFL, with 69 of them coming from Edelman.
Can Thompkins or Dobson hope to match Edelman's rookie numbers? They haven't gotten off to the start they would have liked, but it's certainly fair -- given the current state of the passing game -- to wonder if they could equal or surpass Edelman's 2009 totals of 37 catches for 359 yards and a touchdown.
In the context of this discussion, it's also important to remember Edelman started that year relatively slowly. While he had eight catches in one game (Week 2 against the Jets), he had a total of 12 catches in his first four weeks as a rookie. He went through large portions of his rookie year without a catch, including a stretch from Oct. 25 through Dec. 27 when he had just six receptions. While Edelman was competing with veterans like Moss and Welker, the growing pains are similar. He showed talent in fits and starts, and while there were some issues early and the numbers weren't off the charts, he grew into an important role in the New England offense.
The young receivers face a different challenge in that they're expected to perform at an elite level right out of the gate, working in a highly complicated passing game that many of their fellow rookie pass catchers would also struggle to pick up on. In addition, they enter a pressure cooker -- there will be no acclimation process for them like there is for some of their defensive counterparts. (In stark contrast, second-round pick Jamie Collins has played six snaps through the first two games, having the luxury of sitting and watching veterans like Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes ply their craft while he gradually gets used to life in the NFL.)
The good news? It's likely a short-term thing, as the bulk of the work in the passing game will shift to Gronkowski, Amendola and Vereen once they return. (In Gronkowski's case, that could be sooner rather than later, and that would open up all sorts of room in the opposing secondary for the rookies once he's on the field.) And in the long run, it'll be a life lesson for the rookies, who have been thrown into the deep end of the pool and been told to swim. But in the end, each of them needs to know that, like in life, in the NFL it's is all about what you make of your opportunities. And right now, opportunity certainly is knocking for these rookie receivers. Whether or not they can answer will go a long way toward determining the success of the New England passing game over the first half of the 2013 season.