Position: Wide Receivers
Major Players: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson
On The Bubble: Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, Jeremy Gallon
In letting Wes Welker go to Denver last season, the New England Patriots were counting on free agent Danny Amendola to fill the void. Welker was Brady’s favorite target for six years, and those shoes, despite Welker’s small frame, are mighty big to fill.
Someone did step up and fill them, but it wasn’t Amendola. Instead, it was Julian Edelman, who put together a career-year as Brady had to find a new go-to receiver. Thanks to his 105 receptions in 2013, Edelman earned a new four-year deal with New England over the offseason. With incentives, the deal could be worth up to $19 million for the quarterback-turned-pass-catcher, and after seeing him haul in key pass after key pass last season, the expectations for Edelman will be high over the next four years.
And he’ll likely have to meet or exceed those expectations, at least for this season, because the Patriots did next to nothing to improve Brady’s targets in 2014-15.
Re-signing Edelman this offseason was a must, and fortunately for Brady, they did just that. But after that, all the Patriots added to their receiving corps was 6-foot-3 Brandon LaFell (they also drafted 5-8 Jeremy Gallon in the seventh round, who is on the bubble). LaFell caught a career-high five touchdowns in Carolina last season, and gives the group a little more size. But with him being the only real addition, it means the Patriots are counting on their trio of rookies from 2013 — Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins — to take one giant step forward in their second NFL season.
The hype machine was working overtime in training camp last season, with tons of praise for Dobson and Thomkpins. Each showed glimmers of promise, but overall, their rookie seasons were a bit disappointing. Dobson, a second-round pick, caught just 50 percent of the passes that went his way (37 receptions on 74 targets) while Thompkins caught even less (32 of his 70 targets). Both finished with four touchdowns apiece, with Thompkins hauling in the game-winner in New England’s dramatic Week 6 comeback against the Saints, but injuries, drops and inconsistency dominated their rookie campaigns.
By Tom Brady standards, Tom Brady did not have a very good season in 2013-14 (at least on paper, seeing how he helped his team to their third straight AFC Championship game). The quarterback’s numbers were down across the board, with his 60.5 completion percentage the second-lowest of his Hall of Fame career. Yes, Brady has lost a step or two over the years, but he’s still pretty darn good at throwing a football, and there’s about 25 other NFL teams that would take him under center without pause.
But once again, Brady has the weight of the offense completely on his shoulders. He’s made a career out of doing more with less before, and this crop should be enough for him to get it done again. Now we’ll see if those receivers can take a step forward and make that weight a little more bearable for #12.
There is promise that it can happen. Amendola got off to a hot start in Week 1, hauling in 10 catches for 104 yards against the Buffalo Bills, but suffered a groin injury just before halftime that lingered throughout the season. In all, he played in 12 regular season games (more than most predicted) and finished with 54 catches and a pair of touchdowns. It wasn’t a terrible season for Amendola, but he was a relative non-factor in the playoffs, catching three passes in New England’s win over the Colts in the AFC Divisional Round and having just a single Brady throw go his way in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Broncos.
Amendola should be better in his second season in New England, and Brady may even throw his way more often this time around (if he has earned those targets). But the sophomore receivers are where the most concern remains.
Dobson has been slow to recover from a foot injury that limited him late last year. That means there will be even more pressure in camp on Thompkins, who pulled a disappearing act after a strong September, and Boyce, who never really showed up to begin with (the fourth-rounder had just nine receptions for the year) early in camp.
Everything changes, of course, with a healthy Rob Gronkowski. The tight end commands double-teams and opens up the field for receivers, making everyone’s life a little bit easier. A full season of Gronk clearing up some coverage would make that step a whole lot easier for everyone in the receiver corps.
But Gronk’s health, as we’ve learned, is no guarantee, and neither is the progress of any of the second-year wideouts. That means the pressure once again falls on Brady. He’s done it before, and he’s probably going to have to do it again.
The Patriots focused on defense this offseason, and put together a heck of a group on that side of the field. That means they have confidence in their additions to the wide receiving corps from last season, and why shouldn’t they? They paid Amendola a good chunk of change and invested a second round pick on Dobson.
Now it’s up to Amendola, Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce to make some strides in their second seasons in New England. If they don’t, it could be another frustrating year for Tom Brady.
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