BOSTON (CBS) — If you care about the Patriots and also have a set of ears then you’ve heard by now that Tom Brady will start the season without his five leading receivers from 2012. It’s a factoid that was at first an interesting nugget but has since become the brush used to paint a very bleak picture for the Patriots offense. Tom Brady, soon to turn 36 years old, will be left by his lonesome, standing on a football field, trying to outplay 11 opponents, all without any help from any competent receivers in a wasted season.
Well, maybe the talk hasn’t gone that far off the rails just yet, but it seems to be on that path. There have, however, been comparisons made to 2006 — when the receiving corps included Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel and Chad Jackson — which is enough to inspire nightmares throughout New England. To try to change the course a bit, let’s spend a little time looking at just who will be on the receiving end of Brady’s passes when Patriots training camp kicks off in a week.
The “Brady being without his top five receivers” story is technically true, but in reality, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. The two major losses are Wes Welker, who will now be catching passes from Peyton Manning in the mile high air of Denver, and Aaron Hernandez, who might be watching games on a 14-inch television inside a correctional facility, if he’s allowed such a luxury. Those two dynamic receiving threats are gone, and their absence will without question hinder Brady’s ability to orchestrate the high-scoring passing attack that’s become a staple of the Patriots for years now.
The other receiver lumped into the “five missing” story is Rob Gronkowski. Yet, Gronkowski is still under contract in New England and he is not incarcerated. He will be back. That may not be — and given the man’s absurd surgery count in the offseason, probably should not be — until after Week 6, but Gronkowski will nevertheless be a major part of the offense for the bulk of the season and, more importantly, the postseason. He’s not gone.
The Patriots have not gone back to Brandon Lloyd, despite their circumstance, which says a lot about how decisive the team was to release him in the first place. The fact that no other NFL team has made a move for Lloyd shows the Patriots were on to something. Lloyd was not an All-Pro by any means last season, but he suited up for all 16 regular-season games and both postseason games, making 86 catches for 1,1013 yards and five touchdowns in the 18 contests. That kind of production is not necessarily easy to find, but it’s by no means irreplaceable.
And then there is Danny Woodhead. Everybody loves Danny Woodhead, but trying to lump his departure into the “Brady losing his best receivers” story is a stretch. He caught 40 passes and was a valuable threat from multiple spots in the backfield and along the line of scrimmage, but he was more a player who thrived in the Patriots’ system than he was a key cog in the system.
What matters more than who is gone is who will be in uniform. There is, of course, Gronkowski, though he will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list and may not play in a game until Oct. 20. Returning from last year are Julian Edelman (21 receptions, 235 yards, three touchdowns in nine games played in 2012) and tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, both of whom hardly figured into the passing game last season.
The big addition, of course, is Danny Amendola. While nobody questions the impact he makes when he’s on the field, it is his ability to remain healthy enough to be on the field that’s come into question in recent years. The “injury-prone” tag is still unfair in describing Amendola, though. He played in 30 of 32 games in his first two NFL seasons before being a victim of bad luck in consecutive seasons. All of his weight fell awkwardly onto his elbow in Week 1 of the 2011 season, leading to a dislocation. He tried to come back later in the year but couldn’t make it back onto the field due to his triceps, which had torn when he initially separated his elbow.
Amendola returned unaffected last year, catching 32 passes for 395 yards and two touchdowns in his first four and a half games before suffering another freak injury. He laid out while trying to make a catch and his clavicle popped out of place upon hitting the turf. According to Jay Glazer, the clavicle popped in rather than out, and was life-threatening in that it could have punctured his aorta or trachea. He missed a little more than a month before returning, and he caught 31 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown in his remaining six games.
He’s been injured, yes, but it’s not as though he’s suffered muscle pulls or cramps that are indicative of chronic issues that will never go away. Provided he’s used up all of his bad luck in the past two years, he should be a productive player for the Patriots.
The next best option for Brady might be Jake Ballard. “Might” is the important word there, considering how well a player returns from missing a year after knee surgery is not exactly a predictable science. Yet Ballard showed a glimpse of his skills when he caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns — including the game-winning score in New England against the Patriots — in 2011, and Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady should be able to find plenty of ways to work the 6-foot-6 tight end into the offense.
The Patriots also added Donald Jones, the former Bills wideout who was having a very solid year in 2012 (41 receptions, 443 yards, four touchdowns in 12 games) before an undisclosed medical condition cut his season short. It was an issue the 25-year-old said had bothered him off and on for years, so it’s something about which the Patriots will have some concern. But they believed in him enough to sign him, and their hope is that he’ll be able to pick up where he left off.
Another known commodity returning is Julian Edelman, though it wouldn’t make much sense for the Patriots to put too many of their eggs in that basket. He’s been a fine receiver when healthy, but in four years, he has about one decent season’s worth of production — 69 receptions, 714 yards, four touchdowns. He is, for all intents and purposes, a punt returner who can take some reps at receiver (and nickelback, though that’s probably not in the Patriots’ plans, either).
Perhaps competing for a roster spot with Edelman will be Lavelle Hawkins, a lesser-known 27-year-old whom the Patriots signed in May. He did little in four of his five seasons in Tennessee, but he caught 47 passes for 470 yards in 2011. In his career, he has 71 receptions. Hawkins’ contract did include some guaranteed money, so he’ll get an honest chance to make the team. In a best-case scenario, Hawkins will turn out to be that player whose career is made by Bill Belichick, not unlike David Patten.
Like Hawkins, Patten had exactly 71 career receptions before becoming a Patriot in 2001, when he was also 27 years old. Patten caught 51 passes for 749 yards and four touchdowns before coming up with huge touchdown receptions in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. Putting Hawkins in the end zone in the Super Bowl is obviously putting the cart ahead of the horse quite a bit, but there is at least precedent for a relative unknown joining the Belichick/Brady team and thriving.
One of Brady’s favorite targets, Deion Branch, is in all likelihood done in New England. While there may be no replacing Branch in terms of a comfort level with Brady, Michael Jenkins will be trying to fill the role of veteran wideout. He’s had a fairly consistent career, averaging 45 receptions and 560 yards over the past six seasons. At 31 years old, he’s not a lock to make the roster, but his presence at least gives the Patriots a receiving option with some height (6-foot-4), an asset that’s been absent since Randy Moss was shipped out in 2010.
If a player like Edelman, Hawkins or Jenkins is to end up getting cut before the season begins, it will likely have to do with a solid camp and preseason from either of the drafted rookie receivers, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, or undrafted rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Mark Harrison. However, Belichick’s history with drafting receivers in the past decade has been flat-out awful, so expecting too much out of the rookie class would be overly optimistic. Boyce and Dobson’s college resumes show that their games have merit, but until it’s seen in the NFL, they shouldn’t be counted on by any stretch of the imagination.
Lastly, former practice squad player Kamar Aiken will be kicking around in camp, and special teamer Matthew Slater will technically make the team as a wide receiver. It’s unlikely Slater takes more of a role in the offense, even with all of the roster turnover.
(Many stories this summer depict Tim Tebow as a receiving option for the Patriots, but the quarterback’s zero career receptions indicates — at least to me — that he will not be. Belichick’s made some unconventional moves in his time in charge of the Patriots, but taking a mediocre quarterback and trying to make him a serviceable tight end in the NFL is beyond even his ability level.)
The receiving corps is without question very different heading into 2013 than it was last year, and the Patriots no doubt need several new faces to step up and play valuable roles in order to keep the offense functioning at a high level. With what should be an improved running game as Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen get a year older and theoretically a year better, a bit of the pressure should come off Brady’s shoulders to carry the offense with his right arm.
But when needed, he’ll still be Brady. He won’t have Welker or Hernandez, but he’ll hardly be alone out there. A slight dip in overall passing production may be forthcoming, but the idea that the Patriots have lost 84 percent of their receiving productivity and are due for a massive change in philosophy is one that goes a little too far.