Saturday, June 6, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 4: Patriots Boast Biggest, Best Pass Catching Corps In NFL

Brady's top four targets Amendola (80), Gronkowski (87), Edelman (11) and LaFell (19, bottom right) are back in 2015
The New England Patriots may have the largest stable of pass catchers in the National Football League.

Certainly, the have the largest tight end corps in the league, and probably the most talented as well, and when combined with a litter of wide receivers that excel in the concept-driven passing attack, well, you have an almost unstoppable force.

Consider: The Patriots return every single pass catcher on the depth chart from last season, plus have added at least one major red zone threat and welcome back at least one field-stretching deep threat to an offense that may not be the prettiest at first glance, but is deadly efficient and as clutch as any in the history of football.

That's right, the most clutch in the history of football.  How else would you describe an offense that was able to come back from 14 points down against a tough Baltimore Ravens' defense - not just once, but twice in the same game - to win a thrilling Divisional Round matchup last January, then follow that up with an epic come-from-behind win for the World Championship and there shouldn't be any questions.
Amendola shined in the playoffs

The Patriots fell behind Baltimore 14-0 in the first quarter before quarterback Tom Brady found receiver Danny Amendola to tie the game late in the half, then faced a 28-14 deficit until Amendola hauled in a 51 yard strike from fellow pass catcher Julian Edelman to even things up, then Brady and free-agent pick up Brandon LaFell connected on a sensational toss and catch to eliminate the Ravens...

...with all three figuring in the Super Bowl win over the Seahawks, LaFell with the initial scoring strike, then Amendola and Edelman hauling in paydirt to provide the final - and winning - points of the game - not even mentioning that All-World tight end Rob Gronskowski snagged touchdown throws in all three Patriots' playoff games and led all pass catchers with 15 on the season.

Truthfully, that was about it for the passing game, three wide outs and a monstrous man-child of a tight end mixed with the soft hands of since-departed passing back Shane Vereen - and you would be hard pressed to identify another team in the league that did so much with so little - numbers wise - let alone label them as defending champions.

Yet, here we are.

The Patriots receivers are considered the best blockers in the NFL
All four pass catchers had plenty to prove in 2014, Gronkowski and Amendola returning after offseason surgery, LaFell coming over from Carolina with an underachiever sticker on his name tag and Edelman on a quest to prove that his huge 2013 numbers weren't an anomaly - all legitimate question marks for sure, but questions that were answered with huge statements from each at various points of the season...

...all of them shining brightest on the biggest stages that the sport has to offer - and coming into 2015, there isn't a more solid and experienced pass catching corps in the league.

It's almost unfair, really.  Edelman, the former college quarterback-turned-receiver evolving to the point where he has earned the moniker of the toughest guy to cover in the league. LaFell becoming a legitimate possession receiver after toiling in Carolina's boot-option offense for his first four seasons, and Amendola finally showing the Foxborough faithful what makes him such a special talent when he killed it in the playoffs.

Until that point, Amendola had struggled to stay in the lineup, the rehab from offseason surgery to reattach his adductor muscle to his pelvis a painful and slow - painfully slow? - undertaking, but head ball coach Bill Belichick kept him involved as a kick returner, bringing back 20 kicks for a sterling 24.5 yard per return average, slowly integrating the Texas Tech alum into the offense.

Slowly enough, in fact, that Amendola caught only 27 balls during the regular season, but turned it up a notch in the playoffs with regular playing time, catching 11 balls for 137 yards and the three scores while LaFell topped off his breakout, 74 catch, 953 yard regular season effort with another 13 for 119 in the tournament, including the slick one-handed game winner against the Ravens.

But when you're talking the New England Patriots' passing game, Edelman and Gronkowski get top billing.

One NFL General Manager, who wisely chooses to remain nameless, remarked to ESPN's Mel Kiper that Edelman is "The toughest cover in the NFL right now." as part of Kiper's reset of the 2009 Draft where, if that draft was conducted with the knowledge of how the players careers have evolved, the draft expert put the former seventh-round draft pick as the number four overall selection - making him by far the most productive pass catcher from the class.
Gronkowski is too big and fast to be covered consistently

The former Kent State quarterback followed up his 105 catch season in 2013 with 92 last season, then piled 26 more on top of that in the playoffs, completely taking over the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX as the Seahawks had no answer for his sharp cuts, precise routes and true grit...

...a label that could used on Gronkowski as well, the 6' 6" 265 pound tank of a tight end finally enjoying a fully healthy season after dealing with back issues, a twice-broken forearm and a torn ACL.  How good was Gronkowski?  He was the unanimous choice as first-team All Pro tight end by posting an absurd line of 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 scores in also winning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.

The really scary thing for defenses facing the Patriots this year is that all four of Brady's top options in the pattern are healthy, save Lafell's shoulder surgery - though he is expected back by the start of training camp - and also that New England actually has a chance to be even better and more dangerous in 2015.

Belichick signed 6' 7" pure pass catching tight end Scott Chandler away from Buffalo, picked up for Redskins' move tight end Fred Davis to compete against incumbent depth in Tim Wright and Michael Hoomanawanui, with the possibility of keeping four...

...and former Dolphins' number two receiver Brandon Gibson was signed on the cheap to compete against third year disappointments Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce and fan favorite Bryan Tyms.

Aaron Dobson is fast.  He's big and makes the crazy catch in traffic that makes your jaw drop to your midsection. But he can't do that from the trainer's table, where he has seen most of his time in New England thanks for a fractured bone in his foot that seems to have had some chronic manifestations.

A broken bone in the foot certainly has a tendency to eliminate the speed factor of a receiver, and as a healthy Dobson runs a sub 4.4 in the 40 yard dash, he has the speed to take the top off of a defense, as does Boyce, who ran an insane 4.24 at his pro day coming out of college, but his inability to fully grasp the concept-based offense had him running with the scout team in 2014.

Obviously, this is a make-or-break camp for both players, and even more so when one considers that receivers who can take the top off of a defense is not really necessary for Belichick's version of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, which relies on short to intermediate "spot" throws dsigned to have the ball out of Brady's hand in no more than a second and a half.

That doesn't leave much wiggle room for purely vertical speed merchants, especially since the effective range for both Brady and his protoge Jimmy Garoppolo is right around thrity yards downfield.  That doesn't mean that neither quarterback can get the ball deeper than that, it's just not how the offense is set to run - and in truth, the accuracy for both suffers any deeper than that.

Both are deadly down the seam, however, and that's where Gronkowski, Chandler and LaFell look to make their bones, and if Dobson finds himself on the roster come the regular season, it will be because he's shown that ability on slants, in-cuts and seam routes where he can use his combination of size (6' 3", 210 pounds) and speed to turn a short cut into a big gainer.

Boyce is going to have a tough time making the roster, as will Gibson, Tyms and Jonathan Krause, because there are just so many roster spots, and the trend in New England these days is to get as big as possible at any given time, and only the raw Tyms tops six feet in that crowd.  That being the case, one could reasonably envision eight pass catchers making the squad:

Julian Edelman (5' 10", 200 pounds)
Rob Gronkowski (6' 6", 265 pounds)
Brandon LaFell (6' 3", 210 pounds)
Danny Amendola (5' 11", 200 pounds)
Aaron Dobson (6' 3", 210 pounds)
Scott Chandler (6' 7", 260 pounds)
Tim Wright (6' 4", 235 pounds)
Fred Davis (6' 4", 250 pounds)

One could also make a case for Hoomanawanui, who also came up huge in the playoffs in the pattern, and is a devastating blocker in the running game and a key contributor on special teams.

Because of the unique way that Belichick uses his tight ends as part of the conceptual scheme, he has loaded up the preseason depth chart with size and athletic ability, perhaps in an effort to make the Patriots' offense one that actually fits the mantra of the Erhardt-Perkins, which is not only predicated on having multi-talented receivers that can run every route in any given concept, but also in their blocking ability in the four minute offense.

That is something that is overlooked much of the time, but it is something that sets the Patriots' receivers apart from everyone else, is that the top four are considered to be the best group of downfield blockers in the league.

So, it seems that there's nothing that this stable of pass catchers can't do.  As long as health is on their side and Belichick is running things from the sidelines, this group is going to be very difficult to stop, if not impossible - the only thing that could really dampen the enthusiasm about the passing game being the instability of the interior offensive line at the moment, but if that is worked out in camp, there may be no stopping the Patriots' offense.

This is the fourth installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part five will focus on the defensive line, and how the Patriots have shifted philosophies to make up one of the most imposing front sevens in the league...

Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook ....

No comments:

Post a Comment