The New England Patriots are under a lot of pressure for their new crop of rookie wide receivers to perform well in 2013 and that pressure is compounded by the widespread perception that the organization has been unsuccessful at developing young wide receivers in the Belichick era. Adam Kaufman posted an excellent piece on Boston.com earlier this week about the enormous challenge Tom Brady and the Patriots face in developing their young receivers and goes so far as to call it Brady’s “greatest challenge.” Kaufman is absolutely right that Brady and the Patriots face a serious challenge as the rookie receivers will be counted on immediately to make real contributions. What will make these receivers different than those who have failed in the past, however, is the commitment the Patriots organization has to their success.
Those who worship at the Church of Brady argue adamantly that his ability to thrive regardless of the tools around him is his greatest strength and often cite the 2006 season as evidence of their conviction. That year the Patriots lost David Givens to free agency and traded Deion Branch after a preseason holdout. Brady’s primary target was Reche Caldwell and the opening day roster at wide receiver included the less than imposing lineup of Caldwell, Bam Childress, Doug Gabriel, the rookie Chad Jackson, and an aging Troy Brown. We all know how Jackson turned out, but throughout the season Brady developed a rapport with Caldwell that when combined with the sure hands of Brown, the emergence of Jabar Gaffney, and consistent play from tight end Ben Watson, brought the Patriots within minutes of another Super Bowl appearance.
The 2006 season is instructive for this one given that Brady had to deal with the departure of two of his most trusted receivers in Branch and Givens, but there are other seasons that come to mind as well. In 2007, Jabar Gaffney was the only Patriots receiver to return from the previous year, but the Patriots were not relying on rookie wide receivers to fill the void then. Instead, they turned to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, both of whom were acquired via offseason trades, and also brought in veteran Donte Stallworth via free agency. We all know how that worked out: Welker led the league in receptions and Brady and Moss combined to break the single season records for passing receiving touchdowns. But Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are no Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
There’s still a lot to be determined with all four preseason games still to come, but the Patriots could very realistically open the season with three rookie wide receivers on their 53 man roster. Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are near locks to make the roster and some are already projecting Kenbrell Thompkins to start opposite new Patriot Danny Amendola. It’s been since 2002 that the Patriots opened a season with more than one rookie wide receiver on their active roster. That year, they welcomed Deion Branch and David Givens to the team. Branch emerged immediately as a favorite target of Brady’s, catching 43 passes for nearly 500 yards, but Givens was an infrequent contributor, with only nine receptions. In the two years that followed, however, Branch and Givens combined for more than 2,600 yards and 16 touchdowns and helped the Patriots raise two more championship banners.
The 2002 season was a real challenge for the Patriots. It was Tom Brady’s second season as a starter, his first full season behind center, and at times the Patriots struggled to move the ball through the air. In six games that year the Patriots passed for fewer than 200 yards. They lost five of those games and finished the season 9-7, missing the playoffs for the only time while Brady’s been the starting quarterback.
Much of the chatter about the Patriots reliance on a new class of rookie wide receivers in 2013 revolves around criticism of Bill Belichick and the Patriots staff for their inability to develop young talent at the wide receiver position. Looking back over the past few years, much of that criticism seems warranted, given that the Patriots invested fairly high draft picks in wide receivers like Taylor Price, Chad Jackson and Brandon Tate who never found their way in the Patriots system. Ironically, they had more luck converting Julian Edelman from a college quarterback to an NFL receiver. But perhaps the criticism should be that the Patriots haven’t exactly tried to develop young talent at the wide receiver position since 2002. Since the 2002 draft, of the 91 draft picks the Patriots have made, they selected only eight wide receivers, including Edelman and special teams standout Matthew Slater. They never selected a receiver in the first round and only twice used second round picks on wideouts (Chad Jackson in 2006 and Bethel Johnson in 2003). Only once in that time did the Patriots take two wide receivers in a draft and that was in 2009 when they gambled on Edelman in the seventh round.
All the criticism of the Patriots ability to develop young wide receivers seems to overlook the success they had back in 2002 with Branch and Givens that led very directly to two championships. Yes, the Patriots offense relied heavily on the coaching of former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis back then, but the development of Branch and Givens was more the responsibility of two assistant coaches who were with the team then, Brian Daboll, the wide receivers coach that year, and Josh McDaniels. Of course, both Daboll and McDaniels are back with the Patriots now. Whether they can replicate the success they had in 2002 with Branch and Givens this year with Dobson, Boyce and Thompkins remains to be seen.
There have been a lot of reasons advanced for why young wide receivers have failed in the Patriots system. Some argue that the Patriots have drafted poorly, selecting receivers that don’t have the smarts necessary to grasp their advanced playbook. Others claim it’s simply unrealistic for young receivers to be expected to sync with a veteran quarterback who demands perfection on every play. What’s been more likely the cause, however, is that the Patriots just weren’t committed to the success of young receivers in the past, preferring instead to build their offense around more trusted commodities like Moss and Welker. This year, the Patriots are much more serious about developing youth at the wide receiver position than they have been in the past. Young receivers that have joined the Patriots organization in the past have done so with much less organizational commitment behind them than exists with this year’s group. It’s this commitment that will be most important for the success of the Patriots young receivers in 2013 and what will ultimately separate them from the young receivers the team abandoned in the past.