Thursday, June 5, 2014

Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers as health remains key

Don't be surprised if all nine of the New England Patriots draft picks are still with the team come September.

That includes Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, whom Bill Belichick plucked out of his magic hat just three selections shy of being "Mr. Irrelevant", the moniker reserved for the final pick in the NFL draft - but just for the sake of relevance, believe that Belichick does absolutely nothing without a purpose.

He doesn't give kids a chance because he feels bad for them, nor does he carry a roster spot specifically for hard-luck cases - either you can play football or you can't, and the kid can play.
One way to keep Brady smiling? Healthy pass catchers.

Sure, he's not much taller than a standard garden gnome but his hands are magical and his route running pro ready, something that should appeal to the deliberate Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, as last season he lost his cool on more than one occasion when his rookie receivers zigged when they should have zagged in the pattern.

But that was last season, a surrealistic nightmare that ended with Brady throwing to journeyman Austin Collie and special teams' captain Matthew Slater in the AFC Championship Game - Slater a receiver in label only as the three-time Pro Bowl selection for his play in the kicking game has but one catch for 46 yards to his credit in six seasons with the Patriots - simply because everyone else was hurt.

That is, except for Julian Edelman, who played all 16 games in a season for the first time in his five years in Foxborough, easily posting a career year in every major individual receiving category - but Edelman's health was an anomaly, as Danny Amendola, rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce joined tight end Rob Gronkowski in missing large chunks of the season with injury...

...including the AFC Championship Game at Denver, where the Patriots receiving corps were so decimated by injury that the Broncos stacked the box to stop the run, actually daring Brady to beat them with his arm - which would have been just short of a miracle as Amendola and Dobson were clearly hobbled, leaving Edelman and the aforementioned Collie and Slater as his targets.

Even wunderkind Kenbrell Thompkins  - he of the Cinderella-type meteoric rise up the depth chart in the preseason - had issues, as he hit the rookie wall so hard that he literally disappeared from the face of the football planet.

But despite all of that, Belichick stood pat with his stable of pass catchers this offseason for the most part, bringing in only former Carolina Panther Brandon Lafell and Gallon to the receiving corps, and monstrously huge undrafted free agent Justin Jones and Ben Watson's kid brother to compete as depth among the tight ends.

So it's basically the same depth chart as 2013, as Belichick is pinning his hopes on having a little bit better luck with injuries - because if that happens, this pass catching group is solid, if not spectacular.

As with all things Patriots, health is key.  It is the caveat that will hang on every preview article you will read leading up to the season - but the horror of last season's over-abundance of pass catchers in the infirmary precipitates the cautionary tale, as they started the season with Gronkowski still on the mend and with Amendola nursing a partially torn adductor muscle...

...tearing it completely toward halftime of the season opener in Buffalo, playing through the excruciating pain to record a solid outing before being put on the shelf for a couple of weeks - but Amendola was never healthy enough to win over the glitz and glam crowd, missing four games and parts of two others due to the groin tear and a concussion.

Sure, he fell short of the "Welker-esque" expectations that folks hung on him last preseason - fueling the flames of negativity toward the receiver who came to New England with the "Injury-prone" tag dangling from his jersey - but he gutted out 54 catches despite his handicap and looks completely healthy thus far in OTA's, which is far from the truth as he will continue to play without the adductor as it hangs loosely in his midsection.

So, enough with the Danny Amendola talk already.  He's a tough bastard and a talented receiver, the former a high enough price to pay to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Edelman took the reigns when Amendola went down and never looked back, as the equally tough former college quarterback topped the century and millennial marks in receptions and yards from scrimmage, earning a decent pay raise from the Patriots after not gaining much interest in free agency - and leads a list of six roster locks...

...Gronkowski, Amendola, Dobson, Lafell and Slater all should make the Patriots' 53 man roster at the end of August, with Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Boyce both probable, which really only leaves one, possibly two roster spots up for grabs - between probably Gallon and Thompkins - with a competition between D. J. Williams, Jones and Watson for the "move" tight end spot.

There are others signed and ready for camp, but it's going to take some dark business with injury for Reggie Dunn , Derrick Johnson, Wilson Van Hooser or Reese Wiggins to get anything more than a purple heart and some preseason game film for their portfolio out of training camp.

Tom Brady has taken some grief in recent weeks in regard to an ESPN article that claims that he isn't a top five signal caller any longer, and while Brady has never been wanting for motivation, one has to wonder if the great one won't come into the season with a big, fat chip on his shoulder, particularly after the way last season ended after fighting to get as far as the AFC title game.

But Brady needs his pass catchers to be on the field.  As a unit, there is great balance between size and speed, which gives Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels many different combinations from which to take advantage of virtually any defensive alignment...

...and coupled with what looks to be a driving and powerful ground game, the sky is the limit for this offense.

This is part 5 of 9 wrapping up the Patriots' offseason.  Part 6 will focus on the impending turnover along the offensive line.

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned
Part 4 of 9: Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete

Follow Michael on twitter: @MichaelHammpub

No comments:

Post a Comment