Updating the New England Patriots' Wide Receiver Competition

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Updating the New England Patriots' Wide Receiver Competition
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

For the past six years, the New England Patriots have consistently had one of the most feared passing attacks in NFL history. 

Ever since the Patriots vowed to atone for the Reche Caldwell experience in 2006, the front office has provided Tom Brady with a plethora of elite targets, from Randy Moss to Wes Welker to Rob Gronkowski.  The results have been absolutely devastating—in that time frame, the Pats have put up four of the 12 highest-scoring seasons in NFL history.

However, 2013 looks like it will knock New England's historic offense down a notch.  The Patriots' turnover at receiver and tight end is well-documented at this point, so as Bill Belichick stressed in his opening press conference, it is time to move forward. 

When receivers fail in Foxboro it usually stems from their inability to pick up the Patriots' complicated playbook, rather than physical shortcomings.  That's what makes training camp so vitally important, for with no game plan to master, the receivers can simply focus on developing a reliable rapport with Brady. As the 36-year-old quarterback told ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss, the pace is much like a rolling train:

You've got to just throw as much in there as you can and see what we can pick up. It's not really a slow-paced offense. You need to think fast, you've got to communicate well, everybody's got to be on the same page, so it's hard to slow down something for one person. The train's moving at this point. It takes really smart football players to be in this system, and guys that have done well have been smart players who can adjust quickly.

New England's first checkpoint is coming up August 9, when the offense will finally get a chance to face live action against the Eagles.  For now, here's a look at how the Patriots' most important battle is shaping up:

 

Veteran Locks

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Danny Amendola's rapid cohesion with Brady has been invaluable.

Danny Amendola has been the one consistent target amidst rocky transitions for the other receivers.  During Saturday's scrimmage, the closest the Patriots have come to simulating game action thus far, Amendola's quick chemistry with Brady stood out once again, catching a pair of touchdowns.

There is a common perception that like Wes Welker, Amendola is essentially a pure slot receiver.  While his quickness and size does suggest that, there are aspects of Amendola's game that give reason to believe he could be effective on the outside. 

Alen Dumonjic of theScore.com reveals the nuances of route running in this excellent film breakdown of Amendola, as his shiftiness often allows him to "stack" the cornerback and provide a target down the seam.  Dumonjic provides the complete analysis, but the snapshots really reveal his impeccable technique.  When Amendola plants his foot and uses head fakes to create misdirection, it's reminiscent of the game's best route runners, like Greg Jennings and Reggie Wayne:

Courtesy theScore.com
Courtesy theScore.com

Make no mistake, Amendola is more of a Z receiver.  But if he can hold up at outside receiver on occasion, that would allow the Patriots to put their best receiver personnel on the field in three-receiver sets. 

That's because fifth-year veteran Julian Edelman is more of a pure slot receiver, though a fairly accomplished one in limited reps.  As Field Yates of ESPNBoston notes, Brady has placed special attention on catching up Edelman, who recently came off the PUP list:

Early in practice, the quarterbacks and offensive skill players take part in a "pat-and-go" drill in which a quarterback pats the football, signaling for the skill player to run down the field before he arcs a throw to him. Tom Brady, perhaps as a preservation method, would throw to the first two receivers in line, then allow an assistant equipment manager to throw to the remaining receivers, except Edelman. Brady, who has always spoken highly of Edelman's work ethic, stepped up to throw to Edelman when he was up in the drill.

Edelman's open-field explosiveness has always manifested itself in punt returns, as his 13.15 yards/return average is top in the league among regular returns since 2009.  His slight frame has led to 10 missed games over the past two seasons, but when he is healthy, the Welker-lite comparisons aren't far off:

The last veteran lock is Matthew Slater, the rare player who is valuable solely because of his special team presence.  Of course, Slater is also a team captain, and one of the truly underrated leaders in the locker room. If special teams are all about hidden yardage, then plays like this illustrate Slater's value.

 

Rookie Locks

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

By virtue of their draft statuses, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce will be on the roster come fall.  However, neither has the luxury of a slow acclimation, as the Patriots will rely on both to make immediate contributions and provide both depth and balance to the passing game.

There's a strong case that Dobson should be the Pats' second option at receiver, and the primary split end, or X receiver.  Thus far, the Marshall product has been noted for his tremendous body control in making deep catches along the sideline, and his 6'3" frame provides a natural downfield target that Brady has not had since Randy Moss' departure.

There's been some concern over Dobson's yards per catch decline over his four collegiate seasons.  However, his quarterback Rakeem Cato averaged just 7.2 yards per attempt last season, often struggling to connect downfield with Dobson, per Grant Traylor of the Herald-Dispatch.  Indeed, it appears Cato was wildly inaccurate on deep throws, limiting Dobson to an assortment of curls and out routes:

The Patriots will seek a considerably different role for Dobson, of course.  In past playoff games, defenses who can generate pressure with four linemen have often played a cloud or sky zone, dropping a defensive back down to the front seven to help clog the middle of the field, effectively daring the Pats to throw outside the numbers, like this:

Courtesy SmartFootball.com
Courtesy NFL.com

Dobson simply needs to make defenses pay for such aggression.  He won't be the primary option in this offense, but his presence could provide crucial balance to the Patriots' intermediate-heavy attack.

Conversely, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce comes in with more limited expectations.  Boyce missed all of spring practices recovering from a foot injury, but he has impressed so far in camp with his impressive hands and general grasp of the offense, according to Luke Hughes of NESN.

Some have pegged Boyce as a pure slot receiver due to his height limitations.  While he did usually line up in the slot at TCU, he also demonstrated the speed and strength necessary to stretch the defense:

Even if Boyce is simply a Z receiver, that's not a bad thing, especially considering the injury histories of Amendola and Edelman.  That redundancy makes his potential emergence a little less pressing than Dobson's, but that doesn't mean that Boyce will not get an opportunity to shine if he earns the reps.

 

On the Bubble

Courtesy David Silverman/Patriots.com

With five likely locks at receiver, that probably leaves only one more opening on the roster.  For the sixth spot, it appears the battle is down to Kenbrell Thompkins, Michael Jenkins and Kamar Aiken.

As an undrafted rookie, Thompkins has arguably been the biggest revelation of camp.  As Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald detailed, perhaps the reason for Thompkins' undrafted status had to do with his tumultuous childhood

Thompkins has been clean for five years since seven arrests, and in spite of the recent off-field events, it's unfair to automatically assume anything about his morality or character going forward.

Focusing on the field, Thompkins has stood out for his consistent playmaking ability, according to NESN's Doug Kyed.  Coming out of college, the book on Thompkins was an athletic receiver with NFL-caliber skills, but a player who was also unfocused and a bit inconsistent.  But in watching some of his game footage, the explosiveness that led to a 15.9 yards per catch average is clearly evident:

He's shown no signs of erratic play or behavior so far though, and clearly stands out among this group so far.  He'll have to exhibit the same consistency in preseason games, but Thompkins is the favorite for now.

If Thompkins offers intriguing upside, Jenkins is the polar opposite.  The 10th-year veteran might be a bit boring to some Pats fans, but he would likely bring reliability.  Jenkins' stats have been in decline for years now, as he no longer has the ability to create much separation from corners.  By most advanced measures, Jenkins was among the bottom third of starting receivers, according to AdvancedNFLStats.com.

Ironically, Jenkins' saving grace might be his age as his experience has allowed him to pick up the playbook and serve as a mentor to the plethora of young receivers.  Even if Jenkins does not make the roster out of camp, it seems conceivable he could sign midseason due to his reliability, much like Deion Branch did last season.

Of the three, Aiken seems like the longest shot to make the final roster.  However, people forget that Aiken was actually on the roster last season, though he was mostly on the practice squad.  But that extra year in the system gives him a leg up, and he's earned a decent amount of first-team reps, according to Shalise Young of the Boston Globe.

Regardless, Aiken is still practice squad eligible, so he may stick around past camp as depth.

 

Longshots

Of the three remaining receivers, undrafted rookie Mark Harrison is the one with some intrigue.  Harrison has yet to practice in camp, likely putting him too far behind to make any impact in 2013.  However, when National Football Post compares someone to Calvin Johnson because of his frame, that person deserves some notice.

At 6'3" and 230 pounds, Harrison looks a lot more like Adrian Wilson than the types of receivers Pats fans are used to.  Harrison had an explosive sophomore campaign in 2010, catching nine touchdowns and averaging 18.8 yards per catch on 44 receptions.  But his production dipped thereafter, indicating that he never truly lived up to his gaudy measurables.

At this point, it seems moot to try and rush Harrison back.  If the foot injury is serious enough, the Pats might try to stash Harrison on IR for the season, much like they did with Jeff Demps last year.  With his natural tools, taking a year to learn the system might pay dividends in 2014.

Meanwhile, Quentin Sims and Johnathan Haggerty are likely camp bodies.  If Aiken and/or Harrison fail to clear waivers, then perhaps one of these two would be practice squad considerations.  Both will have to stand out in a preseason game before warranting serious roster consideration.

 

Depth Chart Projection

1. Danny Amendola: Amendola looks set to become Tom Brady's new go-to target.  He does not duplicate Welker's game, nor should Pats fans expect him to reproduce Welker's gaudy stats.  But if healthy, Amendola should be the next in the lineage of successful Patriot Z receivers.

2. Aaron Dobson: Dobson figures to be the X receiver in two-receiver sets, as he is easily the most prototypical split end on the roster.  Since the Pats do not have a whole lot of options to fill his spot, Dobson should get a little more leeway to develop chemistry with Brady.  Perhaps more than any other receiver, the Patriots need Dobson to produce.

3. Julian Edelman: The Patriots often turned to three-receiver sets to combat the tight end injuries last season, so expect Edelman to see a decent amount of snaps.  His punt return skills are invaluable, and he provides important insurance behind Amendola.

4. Josh Boyce: Boyce is quickly making up for lost time during the spring, so it does not seem that 2013 will be a lost year for the rookie.  Boyce's niche overlap with Edelman and Amendola hurts his potential to see snaps, but if he impresses in preseason, expect the Pats to find room to play him.

5. Kenbrell Thompkins: Every year, the Patriots have an undrafted surprise or two in store, and Thompkins is clearly the example this season.  The difference from three to five on this depth chart is not large, so Thompkins could conceivably play his way into a regular role in the offense.

6. Matthew Slater: As stated above, Slater will not play more than a handful of offensive snaps this season.  It is a bit ironic how the last receiver on the depth chart is the likeliest candidate to make the Pro Bowl, though.

Practice Squad/Injured Reserve: Kamar Aiken and Mark Harrison.  Both seem to hold some potential to become future contributors, so expect the Patriots to try and find a way to stash both and provide depth.

 

*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com

 

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