By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
HOUSTON (CBS) — The Patriots’ offense, at its very core, is predicated on one simple commandment: the open receiver is going to get the football.
Sometimes, that open man is going to be a superstar, like Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman. Other times, it’s a lesser-known target, like Chris Hogan in the AFC title game.
It is on one hand a credit to Tom Brady, who’s had little issue in his career spreading the ball all over the field, even while consistently feeding his top targets. Look, for example, at Super Bowl XLIX vs. Seattle, when Brady completed 11 passes to Shane Vereen, nine passes to Edelman, six to Gronkowski, five to Danny Amendola, four to Brandon LaFell and one apiece to Michael Hoomanawanui and James Develin.
On the other hand, it is a reflection this year of a deep stable of receivers, one that has kept the offense churning along even after losing Gronkowski in the second half of the season.
And on the list of players who just might play a larger role than many would expect in this week’s Super Bowl vs. the Falcons, rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell ranks high.
In his first year out of Georgia, Mitchell posted modest numbers — 32 receptions, 401 yards, 4 TDs — but for a rookie playing with Brady, that’s better production than most have had over the past 15 years.
“I have no idea,” Mitchell said this week on how he’s been able to find a connection with Brady. “Just … honestly, just trying to work as hard as I can. We sit next to each other in the locker room, maybe that helps. But I doubt it. Just opportunities, I think.”
Brady has found success with rookie receivers in the past, notably Deion Branch in 2002 and Edelman in 2009. But what’s made Mitchell’s performance stand out is that he’s been able to produce despite being surrounded by other experienced receiving options.
Brady himself noted that he has taken notice of Mitchell’s proximity throughout the year and spoke glowingly of the rookie’s attitude.
“Malcolm’s been incredible for us. And, I mean, I love Malcolm as a player, as a person,” Brady said Wednesday at the team hotel. “He sits right next to me every day. He’s just such a mature young man, and he’s taken everything that the team’s done with him and dealt with it head-on.”
When the Patriots drafted Mitchell, the people of New England quickly learned of his backstory, how he went from reading at a junior high level in college to discovering a love of books as he recovered from a torn ACL. He loved books so much that he joined a book club full of women aged in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
It was an incredible story that showed what Mitchell is capable of when putting his mind to it. And as he shared in the CBS Evening News feature on him, he considered it a “badge of honor” when anyone called him a “nerd.”
His Patriots teammates didn’t use that language, but they all praised the 23-year-old’s smarts.
“I mean, Malcolm’s a really smart kid, and he picked up the playbook just as fast as I did, and that’s part of the reason he was able to get on the field and make plays for us,” said Hogan, who also had to learn the Patriots offense for the first time this year.
Backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo knows firsthand how immense a task it is to enter the league and get saddled with learning the Patriots’ playbook, as he was in that position three years ago.
“It’s impressive. It really is,” Garoppolo said of how quickly Mitchell’s picked up the offense. “He’s a smart kid, though, so it’s not very surprising. But yeah man, I can remember my rookie year, it’s like speaking a whole different language, especially when you come from college where everything is so simplified and now you’re learning one of the most complicated offenses.”
Mitchell also impressed his teammates by overcoming an injury that he suffered in the team’s preseason opener. After catching four passes for 55 yards and showing an instant grasp of the offense, Mitchell’s elbow bent the wrong way as he braced himself for a fall. It looked gruesome. Those watching at home feared the worst. But Mitchell wasn’t worried.
“No, when they told me the X-rays were fine, I immediately said, ‘All right, it’s time to go back to work,'” Mitchell recalled this week.
Mitchell was kept off the practice field for a few days, but returned as soon as they would let him.
“Training camp especially, that’s an important time. You get a lot of reps, lot of reps with different guys,” Garoppolo said. “And for him to still learn at a good rate like he did, it’s impressive.”
The receiver didn’t contribute much through the first half of the season, but when Gronkowski suffered his injury in Week 10, Mitchell was there to step up. In the four-week span that followed, he caught 21 passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns. That included a four-catch, 98-yard, one-touchdown performance for Mitchell in Brady’s first game ever in his hometown of San Francisco.
“He’s just been a great performer for us when he’s gotten the opportunity, and I love being out there with him,” Brady said. “He’s got a great career ahead of him. But he’s a special young man.”
Unfortunately for Mitchell, he suffered a late-season knee injury, one that kept him from playing in Week 17 and in the divisional round vs. Houston. He got back on the field for the AFC title game vs. Pittsburgh, but with Hogan being left wide open all night, and with Edelman being his usual self, Mitchell didn’t get much of a chance to contribute.
But those performances by Hogan and Edelman are likely to influence the Falcons’ game plan, and the defense may be inclined to dedicate some extra attention on Nos. 15 and 11.
And if that happens, Mitchell would seem to be a prime candidate to be the open man.
If he is, it’s a safe bet that Brady will find him.