As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We open with a look at wide receiver.
Depth chart: Julian Edelman (105 catches, 1,056 yards, 6 TDs in 2013), Danny Amendola (54 catches, 633 yards, 2 TDs), Brandon LaFell (49 catches, 627 yards, 5 TDs with Carolina), Aaron Dobson (37 catches, 519 yards, 4 TDs), Kenbrell Thompkins (32 catches, 466 yards, 4 TDs), Josh Boyce (9 catches, 121 yards), Jeremy Gallon, Jeremy Johnson, Wilson Van Hooser, Reese Wiggins.
Overview: The wide receiver position was in a massive state of flux last year, as quarterback Tom Brady faced the challenge of incorporating a ton of new faces into the mix, all while Rob Gronkowski shuffled in and out of the starting lineup because of injury. Edelman did the best job stepping into the void for New England, putting together one of the finest seasons of recent vintage — his first month was as good statistically as almost any receiver Brady has ever had. Amendola struggled with health, and while he had two terrific games (the opener against Buffalo and the loss against the Dolphins in Miami), there were times when he dropped off the radar screen. Meanwhile, Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce progressed about as well as could be expected, but while they had their moments early, all three had problems down the stretch: Dobson played in two games after Dec. 1, due in large part to a foot injury that has cast his availability for training camp into doubt. Meanwhile, Thompkins caught just nine passes after Halloween, and Boyce’s season ended prematurely with a foot injury. Going forward, the group is joined by newcomer LaFell, a versatile presence known for his dependability and blocking skills, as well as a host of younger possibilities.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. Julian Edelman is the closest thing the Patriots have to a No. 1 receiver.
Edelman caught a combined 69 passes his first four years in the league, and then had 105 in 2013, becoming just the third receiver to catch at least 100 passes in a single season from Brady. (Troy Brown and Wes Welker were the other two.) He was absolutely integral to the success of the New England offense last season, and the passing game in particular. While Edelman should get more help this season than last because of the addition of LaFell and the (presumed) development of the second-year receivers like Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce, he’ll be lead option in the passing game, at least until Gronkowski is back to something approximating 100 percent.
2. Danny Amendola is a bit of a mystery.
Amendola was terrific in some games, and absolutely nowhere to be seen in others. The Patriots probably wouldn’t have beaten Buffalo in the opener if he didn’t come away with 10 catches (almost 20 percent of his total for the season) against the Bills in September. He was banged up in that one, and a groin issue plagued him for much of the rest of the year. After a really impressive 10-catch outing in a December loss to the Dolphins in South Florida, he had six catches over the final four games of the season – three in the last two regular-season games and three in the postseason. (In the AFC title game, Matthew Slater was targeted as many times as Amendola.) It sparked questions as to whether or not the quarterback had lost faith in him. A strong summer, good health and a good start to the season would make a lot of those questions disappear, and give Brady another dependable target.
3. Brandon LaFell is a pretty good blocker.
As a member of the Panthers for four seasons, LaFell distinguished himself as a relatively dependable target who was versatile enough to play different spots. (Expect him to do some of that with the Patriots.) But the one thing that really stood out when talking about what he brings to the field are his blocking skills. Speaking at the owners’ meetings this past spring, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was effusive in his praise of LaFell and his blocking skills. “I love his tenacity. He’s a willing blocker. He’s a want-to blocker. He wants to block,” Rivera said of LaFell, who signed a three-year, $9 million deal with New England. “He won’t block because he has to. He’ll block because he has to. He’ll block because he wants to.” It will be interesting to see how the Patriots utilize that aspect of his game this year.
One more thing: He was underwhelming at times over the course of the season, but Dobson’s rookie stats (37-519-4, 12 games) certainly compare favorably to the numbers produced by Deion Branch as a rookie in 2002 (43-489-2, 13 games). Dobson’s receiving yards and touchdowns were the most for a rookie receiver in the Brady era.
1. How many receivers will the Patriots keep on the 53-man roster?
As we wrote here, when you compare the number of receivers currently on the roster with the number they usually carry, it seems like someone interesting could be left out of the mix in 2014. The Patriots had six wide receivers to open the 2013 season, five in 2012 and six in 2011, 2010 and 2009. While that number fluctuated throughout the season because of scheme and injury — and is variable when you consider the fact that Slater is a wide receiver in name only — it could get dicey at the back end of the roster. Of course, some of that is dependent on other positions. (They could carry an extra receiver at the expense of another running back or tight end.)
2. Can Edelman stay healthy?
Edelman was colossal last season, and part of that was because he played 16 games for the first time in his career. Now, the question is whether or not he can build on the success of last year, and become a steady, consistent No. 1 threat over the course of several seasons. As we noted here, history is littered with receivers who suddenly flower in their mid-20s. While some went on to bigger and better things over the course of their careers (like Joe Horn and Donald Driver, who clicked in their mid-20s after a few years in the league and went on to successful careers), there have been others who couldn’t sustain success. Guys like Washington’s Albert Connell (who was out of the league two years after catching 62 passes at the age of 25 in 1999), Carolina’s Patrick Jeffers (who had 63 of his 98 career receptions with the Panthers during the 1999 season at the age of 26) and Chicago’s Marcus Robinson (he had 84 catches with the Bears in 1999 at the age of 24, but never came close to those heights ever again) are cautionary tales for Edelman.
3. Can one of the rookies crack the roster?
Of the group, perhaps the most intriguing prospect is Gallon, a 5-foot-8, 187-pounder out of Michigan who put up insane numbers with the Wolverines. The seventh-round draft choice broke program records in 2013 for receiving yards in a single season (1,373 yards) and a single game (369 yards vs. Indiana). The 5-foot-8, 187-pound speedster also posted good numbers as a return man, compiling 589 yards on 27 kick returns in 2010, and 192 yards on 31 punt returns in 2011. He faces an uphill battle — especially considering the fact that he’s more of a slot guy, and the Patriots already have a pretty good one in Edelman. But New England has had pretty good success with seventh-rounders in the past (Edelman, David Givens, Matt Cassell, Alfonzo Dennard and Tully Banta-Cain), and Gallon could be the latest.
By the numbers: According to Football Outsiders, Patriots’ receivers dropped 38 passes in 2014, more than any team except Detroit. (One more: For all the talk last year of Brady being stripped of so many of his offensive options in the passing game, the Patriots head into the 2014 season in great shape when it comes to personnel carryover from 2013. In all, the Patriots lost 305 catches between the 2012 and 2013 season — 75 percent of the output in the passing game. This offseason, it was a far different story: From a percentage standpoint, when comparing New England’s 2013 lineup with the 2014 roster, the Patriots had a retention rate of 97 percent when it comes to catches — 370 of 380.)
Key new player: LaFell. The positional versatility is impressive, as well as the previously noted blocking skills. There’s a belief he could be moved around the offense like a chess piece, as his athleticism certainly opened some eyes during the spring workouts. The biggest key, by his own admission, is making sure he’s got his playbook down. He acknowledged this past spring that Carolina utilized a numbers system when it came to calling plays, while the Patriots operate using code words. It’s a challenge, but one LaFell feels he can overcome. ‘The quicker I can learn this offense, the quicker I can go out there and be reliable to play fast and know what I’m doing,’ he said this past spring. ‘Now, I’m kind of playing a half-speed because I’m thinking so much. The quicker I can learn this offense, the better it will be for me to get on this field and help this team.’
The skinny: While things will be helped by the (expected) return of Gronkowski and the continued evolution of running back Shane Vereen (who had 47 catches in eight games last season), the success or failure of the New England passing game will again rise and fall on the wide receivers. Edelman should be a consistent threat, and while he shouldn’t be expected to produce another 100-catch year, a 70-catch season certainly seems like a manageable level of expectation. As for the rest of the passing game, another year together should provide a boost when it comes to the chemistry level between the quarterback and the receivers, and that familiarity will certainly insure that the opening of the 2014 season goes a lot smoother than the start of the 2013 campaign. And if youngsters like Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce can make the leap and Amendola can stay healthy over the course of a full 16-game season, it should mean good things for the New England offense.