Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Replacing Edelman: Next Man Up Should Read "Next Men Up"...

When the New England Patriots signed unrestricted free agent Danny Amendola away from the then-St. Louis Rams, the idea was to replace an increasingly garrulous Wes Welker, though that spot in the offense was instead overtaken by Julian Edelman.

Edelman, a former 2009 seventh-round draft pick who had played quarterback for Kent State, had been on the upswing in the season leading up to Welker's departure - and as the story goes, and as is caught on mic'd up video after Edelman scored on a weaving punt return,  prompting Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick to ask Welker if he had ever heard of a baseball player named Wally Pipp.

Belichick ambled up to Welker after the score and when he asked Welker about Pipp, he shook his head and replied that he didn't.

It is important to note that Welker wasn't playing that day because he told the trainers that he didn't feel well, yet he was all over the sidelines, chatting it up with teammates during a contest with the Philadelphia Eagles, and when Belichick caught up with him, he was obviously feeling a lot better.

"Wally Pipp played first base before Lou Gehrig" Belichick grinned without recounting the fact that Pipp went to team trainers for a couple of aspirin for a headache, and asked to be left out of the New York Yankees' lineup one afternoon, and the trainer responded for him to go ahead and take the day off and "let's give that kid Gehrig a shot today.". then Yankees manager Miller Huggins inserted Gehrig into the lineup and the rest, as they say is history.

Pipp was waived after that season, but Welker remained on the Patriots as an elite slot receiver for another three seasons, but what Belichick said to him on the sidelines began a volatile and contentious relationship between he and Welker.

"That might be a punt return story" Belichick continued with Welker on the sidelines after Edelman's return for the touchdown in reference to the Pipp/Gehrig tale, to which Welker replied, "Hey he can have it, man."

Belichick shook his head sadly then bellowed sarcastically, "Way to compete, way to compete."

So when Welker's contract came up for renewal, Belichick was never going to allow that to happen as he had Amendola in town on the night before the start of free agency, poised to take a physical and sign a contract once 4:00pm rolled around.

The moral to the story? Availability, dependability and effort are everything to Belichick, so when the start of the 2013 season started for the Patriots in Buffalo and Amendola suffered a complete tear of his adductor muscle just minutes into the game, Edelman took his place and the rest, as they say (again), is history.

The tables have turned in 2017, with Edelman suffering a complete tear of his ACL, while Amendola is completely healthy for the first time in four seasons in Foxborough.

Amendola's extensive injury history is actually more a matter of the way he has performed his job than anything else, which was with reckless abandon and having little regard for his own safety - but Amendola has mellowed with age and experience and as a result of the adductor tear, which lingered for three years as he had surgery to repair the tear and afterwards he and team had to manage recovery time with part-time action.

But if Amendola is completely healthy and if he's learned to play the game in a more measured and thoughtful way, would he be able to replace Edelman the way he was originally signed to replace Wally Pipp - er, um, Wes Welker?

To answer that question righteously, we need to explore Amendola's medical history.

In 2011, which was his third season in the league, Amendola tore his triceps in the season opener and was lost for the entire season. and then in 2012 he dislocated his clavicle, which nearly killed him as the bone went inward instead of outward, narrowly avoiding his aorta - and then came the groin tear in the 2013 season opener with the Patriots.

As most of his injury history suggests issues with his muscles tearing, it would make sense that part of managing Amendola and preserving his health lies in the training staff keeping his muscles loose and with extended stretching before any competitive activity - and particularly at the start of a season - because when healthy and playing, Amendola is just as capable as Edelman of being the go-to guy when the Patriots really need a play.

And in that respect, Amendola is as clutch as they come - and especially when the moment is biggest and lights are the brightest.

The most recent example of this came last season, when Amendola caught 23 balls for 243 yards (10.6 yards per catch) which, if taken at face value doesn't seem like much, but when you consider that of his 23 catches, nine went for a first down and four went for a touchdown, that presents the fact that 57% of the time that Amendola caught a ball, it either moved the chains or put points on the board...

...but in the playoffs, and in particularly the Super Bowl, when Amendola caught eight balls for 78 yards, a touchdown, the game-tying two point conversion and three first downs - one of those on a critical fourth down conversion on the Patriots' first touchdown drive -  it becomes clear that Amendola and Edelman are cut from the same cloth.

The fact that the Patriots use Amendola mostly in have-to-have-it situations speaks volumes as to his dependability and the chemistry he has with quarterback Tom Brady - and with that said and being undeniable, how exactly does Amendola fit into the equation for buffering the loss of Edelman's production?

With the amount of talent on the pass catching depth charts in New England, he certainly will not have to do it alone, but it goes without saying that Brady and the coaching staff trust Amendola implicitly - but as they proved last season, they also trust Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Rob Gronkowski, and now have former New Orleans speedster Brandin Cooks in the fold.

A very impressive list, indeed, so it's not beyond the realm of imagination that Amendola will continue his role as a late-down specialist and perhaps see an uptick in his overall production which could rival his 2015 season when he hauled in 65 balls - almost triple what he caught in 2016.

But as mentioned before, the burden for replacing Edelman's production doesn't lie solely with Amendola and, truthfully, the players that could truly take on a lot of the burden of filling Edelman's shoes in 2017 are running backs James White and Dion Lewis.

Very quietly and certainly under the radar, White put together the best receiving year for a Patriots' back in the history of the franchise, catching 60 balls - two more than Kevin Faulk did in 2008 and one more than Shane Vereen in 2014 - for 551 yards and five scores, then added 18 receptions for 137 yards and two more touchdowns, giving him 78 receptions for nearly 700 yards and seven scores...

...while Lewis looks to be his old self again like he was in 2015 before tearing his ACL.  That season he caught an astounding 36 balls in seven games for 388 yards and two touchdowns - which would have averaged out to 82 balls for 900 yards.

Of course, this is all speculation.  Perhaps the offense falls apart like it did at the end of 2015 when the Patriots entered the post-season with a still-gimpy trio of Edelman, Amendola and Gronkowski and with no running game to speak of and Brady takes a retirement-inducing flogging from opposing defenses - or maybe everyone stays healthy and the Patriots become a 2007-esque juggernaut that issues the beatings to the defenses.

If the latter occurs, the players on the roster won't have to do do much more than they have already proven they can do to reach that level, as the graph above will attest.  In 2007, Brady competed 403 passes for 4,731 yards and an NFL record 50 touchdowns.

So as a team, the Patriots should be able to make up for Edelman's lost production without batting an eye otherwise.

All they have to do, is do their job.

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