The New England Patriots have completely overhauled the wide receiver position.
But how? And why?
Many people were left scratching their head in the wake of team allowing wide receiver Wes Welker being allowed to walk away and join the Denver Broncos. The logic is there, even if it's unsettling. Welker wasn't flashy, but the Patriots had a known commodity. Without Welker, there is an element of uncertainty with this wide receiver unit.
Rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are being asked to assimilate a complicated offense. Amendola is being asked to man the slot and quickly build rapport with Tom Brady, as Welker did, while staying healthy, which he hasn't done for two years.
That's not all, though. Free-agent signees Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones are being asked to provide depth and size at the position, despite Jenkins' lack of straight-line speed and Jones' eerie medical condition which brought his 2012 season to a sudden halt.
The Patriots are clearly intent to focus less on dominating the middle of the field on methodical 12- or 13-play scoring drives and worry more about their ability to force a defense to respect all parts of the field equally, to create more explosive plays on offense.
We've lost guys for one reason or another, but with Amendola coming in as an inside guy who can also play outside—but primarily an inside receiver—and the two players that we added in the draft with Dobson and Boyce...as you said, they're fast guys that play primarily on the perimeter. They have good size. They're tough. They've shown up in the kicking game and blocking and things like that. They're smart players that are mature, and hopefully they'll fit in well with our offense.
It will be certainly a new receiving group for us, in our chemistry and timing and execution and all that. They have a long way to go to blend in with some of our other veteran players on the offensive side of the ball, but hopefully those guys will all be able to grow together with our relatively young tight ends and fairly young group of backs, and become productive in the passing game and overall offensively, as well.
All in all, it's a high-risk, high-reward gamble, but a calculated gamble no less.
Here are just some of the factors at play.
Is Wes Welker for Danny Amendola an even swap?
This will be met with inevitable eye-rolls from the Patriots community, but while quickness on underneath routes, route adjustments and domination of the slot will not be the entirety of Amendola's job description, they will be part of it.
To this point, though, things are going well. According to Nick Underhill of MassLive.com, Tom Brady "scream[ed] in excitement" after Amendola "made a successful reception and was able to find an open seam in the defense to gain additional yards."
Without having seen it, it sounds like the type of adjustment Welker and Brady have been used to connecting on for years, with the two players seeing the defense through the same set of eyes and hooking up for a big play.
Amendola's abilities go beyond that, though. Make no mistake, Amendola has the ability to stretch the field vertically, and although a majority of Amendola's snaps with the St. Louis Rams came in the slot, he also has the ability to line up on the perimeter.
Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson had the task of covering Amendola in man coverage on this particular play, and the typically speedy Peterson had trouble keeping up with Amendola as the two engaged in a hand war.
Once Amendola created a little separation, he tracked the ball in flight while Peterson tried to catch up.
Amendola had to adjust on the underthrown pass, but was still able to come up with a fantastic one-handed catch for 44 yards, even with Peterson being called for pass interference on the play (which was, obviously, declined).
Amendola logged four receptions of 30 yards or more in 11 games last season. Welker logged three receptions of 30 yards or more in 16 games.
Of course, it looks nice on paper, but to this point in his career, "paper" describes Amendola's durability. He has missed 22 games in his four-year career and 20 games the past two seasons alone. There's no guarantee he'll be on the field a full 16 games.
If he stays healthy, though, there's no doubt he can be an upgrade over Welker.
Can the young receivers learn the offense?
Both Dobson and Boyce bring elements at receiver that have been missing from the Patriots offense for years: size, speed and athleticism. Like Amendola, their ability to win matchups on the outside and stretch a defense vertically will be crucial in helping the Patriots offense evolve.
The question is, can they learn the offense?
From Charlie Weis to Josh McDaniels to Bill O'Brien and back to McDaniels, the Patriots offense seems to have remained fairly consistent over the years. The only thing that's remained consistent, however, is its evolution through additional layers of complexity, which in turn makes the offense more complex for the receivers tasked with learning it.
Belichick said, via Patriots.com:
[...] I would say that a lot of the players who come here feel challenged at that position based on [having] an offense that's been in place for 13, 14 years now. It evolves a bit every year, maybe gets modified a little bit, but it's grown. [It] has a lot more breadth to it than it did in 2000, 2001, 2002. That means a new guy coming in has to learn—to a degree—12, 13 years of stuff instead of a guy that's coming in and learning the system from scratch with a new coach and that type of thing. It probably is a lot. I think that's challenging.
The evolution of the offense over the years makes sense when you look back at the team's history. The mantle of offensive coordinator has been handed down from one assistant to the next, and never before has Belichick brought in an outsider to run the offense.
The look has changed, from a balanced offense in the Super Bowl-winning years to a spread offense in 2007 to the two-tight end juggernaut we've seen in recent years, but instead of changing everything they do, they simply add to it.
Could that be part of the problem? Belichick addressed that notion:
[...] when you put new stuff in, you have to usually take something out. You just can't keep adding, adding, adding. At some point you have to trim the fat. It's a balance, but at the same time you don't want to take that experience and not take new plays or new adjustments or new things that you do and be able to utilize those skills, because a lot of the players can do it but you have to try to catch the younger guys up.
Dobson and Boyce are both considered smart players. Belichick called Dobson "smart" and "intelligent" after drafting him, an assessment he came to after running him through the gauntlet of pre-draft evaluations.
When Boyce was asked about what he brings to the table, the first words out of his mouth were, "I'm really smart, so I think I can pick things up pretty quick." That holds up by his Wonderlic score of 23, the second-best among receivers. Dobson scored a respectable 19.
How will those smarts translate to the field, though? Neither Dobson nor Boyce were asked to run a highly complicated route tree in college. Dobson was in a spread offense at Marshall, and Boyce comes from a read-option style offense at TCU.
That being said, both showed the ability to run crisp routes in college, and if they can grasp the offense and quickly get on the same page with Brady, the rewards should manifest themselves on the field.
Is there enough depth?
Despite a lot of questions, the Patriots have given themselves plenty of opportunities to provide answers.
Amendola, Dobson and Boyce are the top three receivers on the depth chart in Week 1 in the best-case scenario for the Patriots. That means the Patriots are getting as young and dynamic as possible. When one of your top receivers is considered an injury risk, though, it's important to be prepared.
That's why retaining Julian Edelman was such a key. He is as good a backup receiver as the Patriots could have asked for, as he has the versatility to line up inside or outside. His knowledge of the offense will come in handy if he's called upon for a bigger workload.
Adding Michael Jenkins may have dragged down the Patriots' average 40-time at receiver, but he provides another solid outside-the-numbers threat with savvy route-running to win matchups and catch passes in the red zone.
Donald Jones is another receiver with a bit more size than what the Patriots have had on their roster in the past. He practiced at OTAs and told reporters that he was healthy enough to be on the field, according to The Boston Globe. Jones was not asked to run a complicated route tree with the Buffalo Bills, and much of the Bills offense consisted of rhythm throws within five to 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Belichick has equated draft preparation to studying for a test, and then when the draft comes, that's when you get tested on how well you studied. We won't know whether the Patriots passed the test until the regular season, but luckily, it's not 100 percent of their grade.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from Pro Football Focus' premium section, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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