Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reloading the Musket: Part 3 - Settling on an identity key to Patriots' receiving corps

The New England Patriots need to identify an identity for their offense, and they need to do it fast - because one false move in the offseason could spell disaster.

No?  Go to Pebble Beach and ask either coach Bill Belichick or quarterback Tom Brady if they want to go through another season of struggles like they did last season - and although they did discover a personality that defined them late in the season, they just didn't have the horses in the receiving corps to take advantage of the opportunities that the identity provided them.
Dobson could be legit #1

The Patriots are at a crossroads.  The power running game that they discovered far too late in the season was something that they wore well, but with a patchwork receiving corps that featured no contributions from the tight ends and relied solely upon a former college quarterback as their primary receiver, it is amazing that they made it to the AFC Championship game - but not so surprising that they could go no further.

If someone told you that Julian Edelman would be the Patriots' leading receiver at the beginning of the 2013 season, chances are you would have expected an unmitigated disaster on offense, with something more along the lines of a 4-12 record rather than the 12-4 record that the team ended up with.

Of course, 105 catches for over a thousand yards is nothing to sneeze at, but at issue is the fact that no one else came within 50 receptions of that mark - nor did any other receiver play more than 12 games is.  That is truly, to say the least, un-Patriots' like...

...and disturbing, to say the most.

Not as disturbing as the interior line play or the fact that the tight end position resembled something out of a Stephen King novel, as the receiving corps was designed to be a complimentary entity, which is exactly what they were but if not for Edelman's fire and toughness, it wouldn't even have been that.

That said, don't expect a huge splash in free agency, because that just isn't going to happen - mostly because of the salary cap crunch - but there are possibilities on the market.  But before getting to those, the team must decide what it's identity is going to be.

If the offense is going to be the same old Brady throwing to the same targets, why bother?  If that's the case, then the Patriots need to lock up Edelman and get some pass catchers in the draft.  If they want another shot at a championship, they need to lock in on the power game and gain a little salary cap relief...

...let Edelman test the free agency waters, cut Amendola on June 1st so as not to take a huge cap hit on his contract and fly with the power game, using the passing attack as a complimentary piece to the heavy offense - a healthy mix of size and speed in the receiving corps to make opposing teams pay for loading the box like Denver did in the title game.

Edelman is not a number one receiver, nor is Amendola, who has fallen out of favor with Patriots' fans - and reportedly with quarterback Tom Brady as well - The only potential #1 receiver on the roster currently is sophomore-to-be Aaron Dobson, who showed flashes of potential between bouts of early season shakiness (drops) and dealing with a mid-season fracture of a bone in his foot.

The potential for Dobson is through the roof, and was even drawing post-draft hype as a Larry Fitzgerald type, and who actually had a decent rookie season with the Patriots despite his early struggles and the injury.

“This is going to sound crazy," NFL Films analyst Greg Cossell gushed a few days after the selection, "but I thought that his size/hand combination, at times, reminded me of Larry Fitzgerald,” Then qualified his statement with, “He’s not Larry Fitzgerald, obviously, but he’s a big kid who can move very well with really good hands.”

A statement for which Cossell took plenty of heat, as Dobson earned the unfortunate moniker "Dropson", a play on his supposed penchant for egregious drops of Tom Brady offerings - and he was credited with nine drops in 74 targets this season - but before condemning the kid to the waiver wire, it has to be remembered that four of those came in his first two games...

...making the five that he dropped in the ensuing ten contests that he played seem relatively obscure.  Still too many, but it also must be remembered that a certain talented tight end turned multiple felon also dropped nine passes in his rookie year, on far fewer targets.

Amendola has a habit of making people cringe.  Tough as nails, he nevertheless plays with fire in his all go / no quit playing style that contributes to his perceived frailty, every hit he takes makes the Foxborough faithful cringe, fearing that he's not going to get up.

And he's playing with fire this offseason as well, counting on rest to help heal his torn addcutors instead of having surgery to ensure his health, making him no certain lock to be fully ready for the start of camp - and the Patriots can't afford to hit training camp with the same manner of ambiguity that they experienced last season, nor can they run with a handful of second year players without some sort of veteran leadership.

What is left with any game experience at all if that scenario plays out is Dobson, undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins, and speedster Josh Boyce - not to discount what tight end Rob Gronkowski brings to the offense, should he be healthy at any point next season, nor what a fully healthy Shane Vereen contributes out of the backfield

Of course, Thompkins fell off the face of the planet right after his game winning catch against the Saints in week 6 and Boyce saw the field rarely, though he showed enough in his limited opportunities to warrant a look in camp.

Running back Shane Vereen who, despite missing eight games with a broken bone in his wrist, still accumulated 47 receptions - a number that placed him third on the team behind Edelman and Amendola and Gronkowski changes the entire culture of the offense when he is on the field - but the team can not afford to count on his full participation, also taking into account what permanent limitations his knee injury will leave him with.

So, with a very good stable of running backs, that's where the genesis of the offense should be - and along with Brady, be rebuilt from the inside out.
McCluster adds value as a punt returner

With cap space being what it is, the Patriots have several low cost options that could potentially give them a  more dependable stable of pass catchers in 2014 - low-cost due to the glut of so-so receivers hitting free agency in March...

...perhaps the most intriguing of which would have to be Kansas City Running back/Wide receiver Dexter McCluster.

McCluster is too small to be an every down back, but has flat out blistering speed with with numbers similar to Amendola's and is an absolute terror on the jailbreak screen, where his value becomes even more evident is the fact that he is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the league.

Rumor is that the Chiefs are set to offer him $9 million over three years, a figure that would fall in line with the salary cap, particularly if Amendola is cut - and those numbers also translate to two other possibilities on the open market in Philadelphia's Riley Cooper and Pittsburgh's Emmanuel Sanders.
Sanders has been on Pats' radar for two years

Sanders, of course, signed a one year, $2.5 million offer sheet from the Patriots last summer as a restricted free agent that was easily matched by Pittsburgh - and even though he produced his best season on the field for the Steelers last season, he is 30 years old and shouldn't expect much more that what New England offered him per year.

Cooper is a large target that ran into some personal issues last season, drunkenly slurring racial epitaphs at a country western concert - all very ugly, but once the apologies were made and the business of football was in hand, Cooper produced to the tune of 47 catches for 835 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Draft offers it's share of intrigue, but by the time the Patriots are done fixing the tight end position and addressing the offensive line, it could be the 2nd or third round before they can think about a receiver, but there are game changers to be had.
Cooper's speed and size make him intriguing

The likes of Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M's Mike Evans and USC's Marqise Lee will be long gone before New England gets to select, but chances are that the best receiver that the Patriots could hope for, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, may be available in the second round.

At 6' 5" tall and 235 pounds, Benjamin's combination of tight end-like size and 4.55 speed could be a spectacular game-changing target that would force the opposition to key on him and would make a nearly unstoppable red zone target as the following video will attest:

An under-the-radar possibility is Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, a 6' 2", 190 pound speed merchant whose college numbers don't reflect his potential impact in the NFL, due to sub par quarterback play on a Wisconsin team that relied on the power running game - now, why does that sound familiar?

An interesting late round prospect is BYU's Cody Hoffman, with size, decent speed and toughness:

There is little doubt that if Benjamin is available toward the end of the 1st round, the Patriots should seriously consider him - because with Tight End size and remarkable speed, he could be the seam stretching entity and middle-of-the-field possession type receiver that could thrive in the Patriots power system...

...as could Abbrederis, though his skill set sees him stretching the entire field on the outside.  Either one coupled with Dobson and, eventually, Gronkowski would give New England a trio of pass catchers that would cause defensive coordinators nightmares.

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