Aug 16, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Zach Sudfeld (44) makes a reception for a touchdown while defended by Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Najee Goode (53) during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
While there’s been a great deal of focus on the ability of the Patriots rookie receivers to quickly acclimate into the New England passing attack, one thing that’s worth more discussion is just how much the team has asked of their young offensive weapons. The Patriots have not just been relying on receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson for production, they’ve been featuring them in the offense. To see just how pronounced this has been, let’s take a closer look at how active the Patriots young receivers have been through week three.
Through three games of action, the Patriots young pass catching duo has been collectively targeted 49 times. That’s nearly forty percent of Tom Brady’s attempts thus far this season. While Julian Edelman leads the Patriots in targets with 34, Thompkins is not far behind with 28 (with only nine of those targets resulting in receptions). If you remove Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen from the equation, as both players will be out tonight against the Falcons, Thompkins and Dobson have been targeted by Tom Brady 48 percent of the time among the Patriots players that will be active on Sunday night. That’s borderline cruel for two rookies trying to establish themselves in the NFL.
But beyond being challenging for the young wideouts, this lack of diversity threatens to make the Patriots passing attack one dimensional. The Patriots don’t simply need Amendola and Gronkowski back for production, they need them back to add more variety to the passing game. With this imbalance so pronounced, opposing defenses will have the luxury of honing in on Thompkins and Dobson and really limiting the ability of the Patriots to move the football through the air.
Tom Brady has been masterful at spreading the ball around to multiple receivers throughout his career, so there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again. With reports that Amendola and Gronkowski did not travel with the team, Brady will have to wait at least another week for the influx of veteran talent that he’s eagerly awaiting. So outside of Edelman, Thompkins and Dobson what options does Brady have tonight? Well, therein lies the problem.
Because of the injuries the Patriots have on offense, they are extremely thin at wide receiver and tight end. The position the Patriots have struggled most to generate offensive production from has far and away been tight end. Of course, this is a shocking turnaround from the last few seasons, but it’s the world the Patriots live in now. The most production they’ve seen from the tight end position was last week when Michael Hoomanawanui had two catches for 36 yards, certainly not the kind of celestial numbers the Patriots were accustomed to with Gronkowski and Hernandez. Hoomanawanui is generally viewed as a blocking tight end and is not likely to provide much production in the passing game going forward.
Perhaps the reason Brady has targeted Thompkins and Dobson so frequently early in the season (apart from injuries) is because the best options to provide more diversity in the passing game are also rookies in Josh Boyce and Zach Sudfeld. Both rookies have had limited opportunities thus far and are still looking for their first NFL reception. Boyce and Sudfeld have been targeted by Tom Brady only four times this season and collectively have nothing to show for it.
Sep 8, 2013; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Josh Boyce (82) catches a pass before the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
It’s hard to say if Boyce and Sudfeld will see more opportunities tonight in Atlanta. Thompkins and Dobson showed good progress against Tampa Bay and trust is likely building between the young tandem and their quarterback. The Patriots would be smart to try and get Boyce and Sudfeld more involved in the offense, however, or they risk becoming too predictable. Boyce has the potential to be a versatile piece of the Patriots offense. His route running ability could make him an effective possession receiver and his speed could challenge defenses vertically, so it’s surprising that he hasn’t seen more action. If given the opportunity, Boyce could add versatility to the offense that’s been missing since the losses of Shane Vereen and Aaron Hernandez. His speed makes him an option on end-arounds, something the Patriots were very effective running with Hernandez.
Rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld showed great promise in the preseason but has struggled with a hamstring injury early in the regular season. Unfortunately, the most notable play he’s been involved with so far was a pass that tipped off his fingers and resulted in an interception. Regardless of this mishap, the Patriots should make an effort to get Sudfeld more involved. Gronkowski’s health will remain a question well after he returns and even if he can stay on the field, the Patriots offense would be more effective if they could establish a second tight end as a legitimate pass catching threat. In addition, the Patriots have struggled mightily in the red zone this year and Sudfeld’s frame makes him an ideal target in the end zone for Tom Brady.
It will be interesting to see how the Atlanta secondary approaches defending Thompkins and Dobson. It’s no secret how much the Patriots offense has featured them, so it’s reasonable to think that defenses will start to hone in on them and try to limit their production. Whether the Patriots can establish some additional threats on offense, such as Boyce and Sudfeld, could determine how competitive they will be against top-tier teams like the Falcons. Sunday night will be the first of many opportunities for Tom Brady and the Patriots to try and establish that much needed diversity.