Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 3 - How Many Receivers Do The Patriots Need Anyway?

"The way the Patriots' offense looks to be structured will have an impact not just on the fringe depth at tight end, but probably will impact the receiving corps and depth at offensive Bennett will take a roster spot from at least one of the swing tackles and from one of the wide outs, as his blocking ability on the edge combined with his pass catching prowess gives Belichick some roster flexibility, and given the fact that he will rarely come off the field." - Foxborough Free Press, June 7, 2016

A syllogism is a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is drawn from two assumed or given premises, each of which shares a term with the conclusion and shares a common middle term not present in the conclusion - an example of which would be something to the effect of, "If it rains, we will not have a picnic.  If we don't have a picnic, we will eat at a restaurant.  Therefore, if it rains, we will eat at a restaurant."

This tenet of deductive reasoning allows us to assume things in a manner that doesn't make an "ass" out of "u" and "me", which is important for folks like mathematicians, scientists and, apparently, football prognosticators and beat writers - well, maybe not beat writers, but people who really care about accuracy and accountability.

It doesn't always work out, because syllogism doesn't rely on validation or truthfullness or even factoids, rather,it afford free reign to imagine and to dream, if one is so inclined - the only rules being one term influencing another to arrive at a logical statement or conclusion.

What does this have to do with football? It is deductive reasoning that allows coaches to track trends to incorporate into game planning, so they know that when they see a certain formation with certain personnel, they can conclude that, more likely than not, a certain play is coming.

The same dedustive reasoning is present in the team building process as well.  Let's take the New England Patriots as the offseason's prime example, and their acquisition of tight end Martellus Bennett in particular:

Martellus Bennett is a complete tight end
Complete tight ends rarely come off the field
Therefore, Martellus Bennett will rarely come off the field

And why should he?  As we know from the second part of this series, the addition of tight end Martellus Bennett changed the dynamic of the offense, affecting almost every position on the squad - he is a strong blocker on the edge in the running game and possesses a skill set that will likely make him no worse than a number four receiver, more than likely a number three.

All that means is that it will be a rare occasion indeed if either he or his All World compatriot Rob Gronkowski ever come off the field, and the same can be said for top wide out Julian Edelman.  That leaves two "skill position" spots up for grabs in a so-called starting capacity, and at least one of those will be going to be a running back, either power back LeGarrette Blount or passing back Dion Lewis or, in his stead, James White.

For the offensive line, it impacts the tackle depth, as with Bennett and Gronskowski playing on the edges, it eliminates the need for at least one swing tackle, a roster spot that can be used elsewhere, and not necessarily on offense - or maybe so as New England will be forced to keep three quarterbacks, as opposed to two from last season, which takes up that extra spot.

But enough about the line and quarterbacks for now, as we'll cover them in later pieces - right now the question begs, just how many pass catchers does Tom Brady need - or an even better question is how many roster spots will be open for his wide receivers, because the tight end and running back depth is pretty much assured.

Just for comparsions sake and in an attempt to establish somewhat of a base line, in 2015 Belichick kept four tight ends, five running backs and five receivers, not counting Brandon LaFell, who started the season on the PUP.  In part, these numbers were dictated by a rash of injuries before the preseason ended, but the sylloism begs:

In 2015 Belichick kept just five receivers
Injuries reduced the receiving corps to pedestrians
Therefore, Belichick will keep more receivers in 2016.

That isn't necessarrily true, but still counts as a syllogism because they are limited only by imagination.

Besides LaFell being on the Physically unable to perform list to start the season, the preseason claimed fellow receivers Brandon Gibson and Brian Tyms, H-back James Develin and center Bryan Stork, who was designated to return and did so in week nine - and all of this after Belichick released Kenbrell Thompkins and the disappointing Josh Boyce.

A constant revolving door of player movement ensued, with names like Jonathan Krause, Jalen Saunders and even the venerable Reggie Wayne being signed and then released, eventually leaving the Patriots with Julian Edelman, a clearly hobbled Danny Amendola, a timid Aaron Dobson and rookie Chris Harper and wide receiver in name only, Matthew Slater, a process that limited the passing game to literally, just one Edelman injury away from disaster...

...which eventually happened and, coupled with a myriad of injuries on every level of the offense, doomed the Patriots to finish with a putrid 2-4 record down the stretch. then squeaking out a divisional round playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs before succumbing to the eventual Super Bowl winning Denver Broncos in the AFC Title game.

Clearly, the wide receiver position is one Belichick would like to take a mulligan on, as well as on free agent tight end Scott Chandler, who underwhelmed before being injured halfway through the season and failing to give Belichick an updated version of the two-tight end offense that he's been so fond of.

Ok, so that's two mulligans, which will generate rude grumblings on the golf course and did cause grumblings of discontent among Patriots' fans, though most simply blamed the offensive line for the fiasco, but the truth of the matter is that General Manager Bill Belichick took a chance and hoped that the injury bug wouldn't treat him too badly...

...but it instead kicked him square in the teeth, and it would have been even worse than it was had he not saved a measure of ego with the performances of his passing backs, as first human joystick Dion Lewis and, eventually, James White doing yoeman's work out of the backfield, with White taking over for the injured Lewis and joining with Gronkowski to give quarterback Tom Brady his only reliable targets down the stretch.

Even then, there was a sliver of hope that New England could ride their excellent defense and score just enough points to make a deep run in the playoffs - that is until power back LeGarrette Blount injured his hip and was also gone for the season.

The fact that the Patriots came within two points of going to the Super Bowl anyway is either a testament to fine coaching or plain stupid luck - or a combination of both - but that's a ride that Belichick doesn't want to take again this season, nor ever again.

The four tight ends kept was pared down to three when Belichick dealt Michael Hoomanawanui to New Orleans at the end of September, which will probably be the number that the Patriots keep on their 53 man roster - while in the backfield, he kept five backs initially before unloading soft-blocking Travaris Cadet a day before dealing Hoomanawanui.

Both of these units impact the receiving corps in a way that not many other teams can claim, in that they are loaded down with top-end talent at tight end and have a trio of fine young greyhounds in the backfield who can -and will - be deployed outside the numbers from time to time - and if the number of legitimate pass catchers kept on the 53 man roster is any sort of tamplate to follow coming into 2016, then the most intense roster battles are going to be at wide receiver...

...with no less than seven players vying for one spot, two at the most - because Belichick has amended his normal thought process in regard to philosophy with the addition of Bennett.

As we've already read, There is so much versatility and overall talent on this roster that Belichick can't look at his positional groupings in terms of set numbers, rather, his task is to identify the players that give him both positional versatility and the best chance at forcing the opposing defense to defend the entire field - because if you can't do that, things like what happened the final couple of months of last season occur.

Currently, there are 22 eligible pass catchers on the Patriots' roster, and if one were to eliminate the locks  - Gronkowski, Bennett and Harbor at tight end, Blount, Lewis, White and Bolden at running back, plus figuring in Edelman, Amendola, Hogan and Matt Slater at wide receiver - there are eleven roster spots taken right off the top, leaving three, possibly four, spots up for grabs.

Legitimately, one could go to fullback James Develin, another to running back Donald Brown and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell appears to be a sure thing as a fourth round draft pick, meaning that there is maybe one spot up for grabs between at rest of the pack because the team will carry nine offensive linemen - at minimum - and there are three quarterbacks that need to be accounted for.

Of course, this is all just specualtion, but isn't the entire point of balance on offense to make the opposition defend the entire field, not allowing them to load up on one aspect or another?

Because that's the key, folks, the most fundamental concept in football since the advent of the forward pass brought the term "balance" to the gridiron - but balance in the way the Patriots think about it is more about personnel usage than simply run versus pass - though a solid balance between the run and pass is essential.

For example, we are virtually assured of seeing at least two tight ends and one running back in on every play from scrimmage - which is the "12" personnel package - because the dynamism inherent on the depth chart dictates that the tight ends and running backs are going to account for well over half of the receptions made by pass catchers.

...which was the case in 2015 (53%),  because by the time all of the injuries took their toll, all that was really left to catch footballs from Brady was White and Gronkowski, with Amendola the lone wide out that made any impact.

Lewis was well on his way to a 70 catch season, as was White after replacing Lewis, and assuming that Gronkowski and Bennett are good for 70 catches as well - that's 210 receptions for the top non-receivers, and with Brady averaging right around 400 completions per season , the numbers allow for minimal contributions from the wide receiver corps.

That's how the offense is designed going into 2016, but most fans - and even the beat writers - also know that Edelman is going to have his share of targets, as will Amendola and the newcomer Hogan, but after that will be meager scrapings, so for Belichick to get the most bang for his buck, 12 and 22 personnel groupings will be the standard...

...meaning that only two receivers will see the field in most packages, and just one if New England decides to go heavy, which should happen mostly on third downs and in the red zone.  Even if they go five-wide, they have shown in recent history that a running back will always be a part of that equation, and most times Gronkowski is involved.

Because, well, think about it - if you were offensive coordinator, would you take Gronkowski, Bennett, Edelman or Lewis off the field?  Ever?

Not Josh McDaniels and certainly not Bill Belichick, who thought enough of himself and the franchise to thumb his nose at the powers that be who saw fit to take away his prized top draft capital by going out and grabbing Bennett for next to nothing, knowing that he was adding him to what was already a roster loaded with playmakers

So, how many wide receivers do the Patriots need?  Well, therein lies a pretty significant problem of having so many playmakers in the passing game at other positions that the receiving corps has been relegated to being borderline complementary to the tight ends and backs in the pattern - so there will be plenty of meat for other teams to pick off the waiver wires from the Patriots... names like Nate Washington, Aaron Dobson, Keshawn Martin, Chris Harper and DeAndre Carter may very well become available for other teams to snatch up - which would be a shame, particularly for Martin, who just signed a two-year extension, but he did receive a $600,000 signing bonus with the deal, meaning that the Patriots likely see him on the roster as well.

And that's it.  There's just no more room at a position that has been largely dictated to by roster and philosophy.  The tight ends and backs are just more important in the grand scheme, because they are far more versatile than being just plain pass catchers - and the same thing is going to happen to the offensive line, but that's for a later piece.

Ah, Bill, leave it to you to take perhaps the NFL's most proficient and deadly passing attack and transform it into something that discounts tradition. They will stretch the matter by adding Matt Slater to the mix as a special teamer, but it looks like any player not named Edelman, Amendola, Hogan or Mitchell may be seeking new digs come September.

If the Patriots remain healthy, they will be tough to beat
If they are tough to beat, they will win a fifth trophy
Therefore if the Patriots remain healthy, they will win a fifth trophy.

And that one is true.  Isn't logic fun?

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