New England Patriots Midseason Forum, part 7: Receivers & Tight Ends
By Michael Hamm
The New England Patriots do not have a deep threat at reciever.
Some fans and media are down on wide reciever Brandon Lloyd because they think that he was brought into the fold to be that deep threat – but that’s not his game and it never has been, though he can get loose from time to time for a long gainer. He’s not an underneath possession reciever either. He will run intermediate routes underneath, but as soon as the ball hits his hands, he’s looking for a place to sit down. He’s not going to get you a great number of yards after the catch, nor is he much for contact.
So…why did the Patriots go after him in Free Agency when it was percieved that they were a deep threat away from being a juggernaut?
Simply, because perception doesn’t always translate to reality.
New England signed Brandon Lloyd from the Rams not so much as a vertical threat, but as a horizontal threat. He is a master at working the sidelines with excellent hands, concentration and foot work. He can gain separation suddenly and will take the opposition’s best corner to the outside every time, eliminating him from the action.
He is a possession reciever that works outside the numbers, and when you team him with someone like Wes Welker – who owns the middle of the field – the chains are going to be moving at a rapid pace.
Wes Welker is a possession reciever as well, but with a different and much more diverse set of intangibles. Some would say that he is so impactful for the Patriots that had he been more highly touted and drafted coming out of college, he would be a sure fire Hall of Famer.
Curiously, despite being an afterthought his first three years in the NFL, his career numbers still support that bold statement. There is nothing remotely prototypical about Welker except he is always open. But once he wins a Super Bowl, he’ll get to wear that ugly yellow “Howard Cossell” blazer and have his head bronzed.
Once he wins a Super Bowl.
Usually you only hear that kind of cheap talk about quarterbacks, not about half-pint recievers with only 710 receptions and 8,000 yards – that is until you consider that he’d done mostly all of that damage in only six years.
Since arriving in New England via trade with Miami, all Welker had done is win the receiving title 3 times, been named a 1st team All Pro twice and been voted to four consecutive Pro Bowls – and he’s looking like a candidate for all three again in 2012. But it probably still won’t be enough to get him in without a World title…
October 21, 2012; Foxboro, MA USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) runs with the ball during the third quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-US PRESSWIRE
…but that is talk for another night, probably years from now. What we need to know on this night is that this offense goes through Wes Welker. It was supposed to be Aaron Hernandez’ offense, but he went down with a bum ankle in week two and hasn’t been a factor since. In fact, when the season started, Welker wasn’t even a starter as the Patriots’ braintrust was looking at game plans involving a heavy dose of tight ends and only one or two recievers.
Some mused that Belichick was phasing Welker out of the offensive game plan, while a minority actually believed what Belichick was feeding us, that Welker’s limited role was a trickle down effect of game planning for particular opponents…which is a load of crap, of course, because there is no way that Welker wouldn’t fit into any game plan.
How does he not fit? Perhaps the preeminent master slot receiver in the game today, Welker is tough as nails and slick as a banana peel on a sheet of ice and is nearly impossible to cover out of the slot -and there are occasions in every game that he will break off to the outside, giving a defender an odd angle to try to reach for – and Brady a rangy deeper target.
Angles are his game. He is not particularly fast, but he understands angles and leverage. He studies relentlessly to identify trends and habits of cornerbacks and safeties so that he knows precicely when to cut and at what angle. He is sudden out of his break and is nearly impossible to cover effectively. And his connection with Brady is a like some sort of astral lifeline or, as some commentators put it, an extended handoff.
And then there’s Gronk.
He doesn’t rely on angles, but digs on leverage. He doesn’t look for a place to sit down. He just runs his route, catches the pass and runs with the ball until defenders are able to bring him down.
That’s plural. Defenders.
And if he gets his shoulders square and turns upfield, Lord help whoever tries to get in his way. He doesn’t try to juke folks out of their socks, and really doesn’t even try to avoid the defender to begin with. He just runs them over, and drags them if they happen to survive the collision.
A monstrously athletic Tight End, Rob Gronkowski drags two or three guys down the field regularly. Portrayed on highlight reels as a “Mongo” style Neanderthal with their “Gronk spike, Gronk happy” quips. He is their “Goon” both figuratively and literally. The goofy kid having a blast off the field is an absolute nightmare on it. He does the dirty work underneath – trap blocking, setting the edge, then releasing into a safety valve like pattern in case Brady needs a quick out.
Man, these guys sound awesome – maybe the best corps of recievers in the league?
Perhaps, but we haven’t even gotten to the exciting part yet.
The depth in this corps is crazy good, particularly at the tight end position. On the mend and nearly ready to resume his season, Aaron Hernandez has been described as a natural H-back, and can line up virtually anywhere in the offense. A severely sprained ankle in the second game of the season has derailed Belichick’s plans for him and the offense, but he can more than make up for it if he can stay healthy from this point forward.
Visanthe Shiancoe, he of Minnesota Vikings fame, has been on the Patriots’ IR for the first half of the season and is slated to debut on the active roster this week. Though not as diverse in his skill set as the swiss-army-knife Hernandez, he is still an athletic big man with great hands and a nose for the sticks. Daniel Fells has proven a valuable blocking end and, when targeted by Brady, has shown soft hands and is able to gain yards after the catch with deceptive speed – and Mike Hoomanawanui has proven to be just as tough as his name is to pronounce, finding a niche as one load of a blocking fullback in addition to being another recieving threat.
Pats 7, 2012; Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead (39) carries the ball against the Denver Broncos during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE
The depth at wide reciever isn’t as impressive, unfortunately, but it really doesn’t have to be. Deion Branch is obviously on his last legs of a stellar career but can be effective in spot duty while former college quarterback Julien Edelman has tremendous upside as a slot reciever, but a hand injury has limited his action.
And if you happen to need, say, 19 yards in a critical situation, just get the ball to your 3rd down back, the shifty and tough Danny Woodhead. The demure running back is as viable a recieving threat as any reciever on the roster and has a niche for making the big play just when New England needs it most – and he is perhaps the only player on this offense who is a threat to take the ball to the house any time he touches it.
No, the New England Patriots do not have a deep threat in their recieving corps, but they don’t really need one. The need for speed has been trumped by numbers.
A team doesn’t need a deep threat when they already have too many talented recivers for the defense to account for.