Some say that familiarity breeds contempt. For the New England Patriots offense, familiarity bred touchdowns, season after season.
Continuity and chemistry is incredibly valuable to the Patriots receiving corps. QB Tom Brady expects his receivers to read the defense the same way he does and run their option routes accordingly. The Patriots offense is predicated on timing and decision-making, making intelligence as important to a Patriot WR's success as straight line speed or measurables (apologies to Chad Jackson).
That's what made Wes Welker so valuable and dangerous out of the slot. He read the same keys as Brady and made smart pre-snap decisions. After the snap, he was disciplined with his route-running—a hard cutter who didn't get lazy and round off his routes.
With Welker and outside WR Brandon Lloyd gone, TE Rob Gronkowski battling tissue infection and Julian Edelman in a walking boot, New England's fresh crop of WRs will need to develop familiarity with their QB very quickly.
Let's take a look at some players who might seize the absence of veteran receivers as an opportunity to demonstrate their own skills.
Amendola, who came to the Pats from the Rams as a free agent with a five-year, $31 million deal, is the blockbuster name among a relatively unknown group of receivers. To that end, the fanboy in me is happy to see offseason stories like this:
New England @patriots QB Tom Brady and his newest WR Danny Amendola were working out together at USC today.
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) April 2, 2013
From this limited perspective, Amendola appears willing to work to develop the requisite chemistry with Brady. But what does he offer the Patriots as a receiving threat? Let's take a look at the comparative route tree production for Welker and Amendola, per ProFootballFocus:
The fact that Amendola missed five games last season, coupled with Welker's status as one of the most targeted receivers in the league, is naturally going to mean we'll see better aggregate stats from Wes here. Instead, let's analyze at the usage of each receiver and their most efficient routes.
First, let's go deep. Neither receiver excelled at deep corners, go-routes or posts, with Welker hauling in just nine of 23 attempts on these deep routes and Amendola bringing home just seven of 15. So Pats fans shouldn't expect Amendola to add a third-level dimension to the Pats receiving attack.
Deep threats are nice, but throwing to them generally yields boom-or-bust results. As a QB, you want someone who can reliably move the chains underneath.
In small sample sizes, there is hope that Amendola can replace Welker as the Pats' high-efficiency receiver. Welker, whose bread and butter are out routes (as you'll see in the video below), was 39 for 58 combined on in, out and quick-out routes, for a 67.2 percent completion rate. That's excellent efficiency: A QB who completed 67.2 percents of his passes last year would have ranked third in the NFL in completion rating, tied with Aaron Rodgers.
Amendola was even better.
On in and out routes, Amendola racked up 31 receptions in 43 attempts, good for a 72.1 percent completion rate. That would have topped Matt Ryan's league-leading completion percentage by over three full points.
While Welker has proven his value as a playmaker on screen passes (21 of 22 targets at 205 yards, or almost 10 full yards per reception) and Amendola has yet to do so, Amendola does have one other major advantage: Hands.
Welker dropped 15 of 172 targets last year, which amounts to 8.6 drops per 100 targets. Amendola dropped just two of 101 targets, or 1.98 drops per 100 targets. Given the frustration over drops by Welker in key spots last year, Amendola will quickly endear himself to Pats fans if he demonstrates sure-handedness in his receptions.
Dobson was the Pats' marquee offensive pick in the 2013 NFL draft, selected 59th overall. If he can win a starting job, Dobson could be an excellent outside complement to Amendola's slot game.
Dobson is big (6'3"), fast (4.42 official 40 time) and can jump (35" pro day vertical). He has great hands and good body control, and according to Coach Belichick, he's smart:
He can explain the techniques, his assignments, what other guys are doing at Marshall. He’s a pretty intelligent guy. He had a good understanding and grasp of learning, taking new information, processing that and being able to understand it and apply it. Tell him something and then see a play a few plays later and say, ‘What would you do on this play if they did this, they did that’? There’s different ways to measure all that, but he’s a pretty impressive kid. He’s a mature kid. He’s pretty smart.
He doesn't appear to have great lateral separation skills, but for his size, he can get down the field. He can serve as both a deep-threat and a viable red-zone weapon, which is something the Pats haven't had from the WR position since Randy Moss.
Plus, he can make plays like this:
The key for Dobson will be for the coaching staff to ease him into learning the offense. They can't throw the entire playbook at him and expect him to be prepared for Week 1. Given their WR situation, the Pats may need Dobson to contribute immediately, and that might mean simplifying the route tree and allowing him to make simple reads based on coverage.
Dobson has the tools, but it's up to the coaching staff—and him—to put it all together if he hopes to crack the starting lineup. If he can win the X receiver position at some point in the season, the Pats may finally have the deep threat they've lacked for years.
Boyce was another 2013 draftee of the Pats, selected with the 102nd pick fresh from TCU. Boyce has value all over the field, as a potential outside receiver, slot man and punt returner.
It's worth asking whether Boyce would have been picked if the Pats had managed to wrangle restricted free-agent WR Emmanuel Sanders away from the Steelers. Boyce has a similar skillset to Sanders— he projects to be primarily a slot guy, but he has average height and top-end speed that suggest a possible outside receiver in a pinch.
Given his relatively low center of gravity and strength (22 bench press reps at the combine), Boyce is tough to bring down. That, plus his impressive speed makes him a difficult cover wherever he lines up.
I mentioned above that Amendola hasn't yet proven himself as a high-yield player on screens. If it turns out Amendola can't do it, Boyce could be a threat to beat defenses off the bubble-screen. That could be his avenue to demonstrate his playmaking ability and carve out more snaps for himself, especially if he proves to be a solid blocker (scouting reports in that department are good).
Boyce won't be the focal point of the offense in 2013, but he's the kind of speedy complementary receiver who can take some heat off the Pats TEs and Amendola.
What a relief it is to sign a "tough, gritty," undrafted white skill-position player. With the departure of Welker and Danny Woodhead and the near-departure of Julian Edelman, I was worried we were going to run out of those.
In all seriousness, Moe might be a high-value UDFA. At the combine, Moe was the top performer among WRs in the bench press (26 reps), three-cone drill (6.53 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (3.96 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (10.87 seconds).
So why did he go undrafted? Well, for one thing, he was last among WRs in the 40 time (4.74 seconds). So that's not good.
Of course, straight burner speed doesn't always translate into NFL success (hi there, Bethel Johnson), and not having top-end speed isn't a death knell if you know how to establish separation, like Wes Welker himself.
Moe, like Edelman, is a convert from QB (though Moe hasn't been a quarterback since high school). He's smart and can find soft spots in the defense, and his compact frame allows him to work effectively inside. Plus, he's got good hands and instincts, as you can see in this GIF.
Moe very well might not make the team, but if he gets a shot with any team, it would probably be the Patriots. There's this from his combine diary:
I think the thing that set me apart from the rest of the receivers in this draft class was when I was asked to draw up some plays. By the time I left Mizzou, I even had a pretty good idea of what the linemen and running back were doing on each play. The NFL coaches were really impressed with my knowledge of our offense as well as my knowledge of different defenses.
Does that sound like a Belichick patsy (pun intended) or what?