Why the Patriots Wide Receiving Corps Could Be Boom or Bust
Experience and dependability vs. youth and potential.
That's the trade-off the New England Patriots made when they moved on from Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch and moved forward with Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, Julian Edelman, Kamar Aiken and a host of others.
If everything clicks, the Patriots offense could be one of the best in the NFL yet again in 2013.
It's up to quarterback Tom Brady to get on the same page with his receivers—and vice versa—as quickly as possible.
The early stages of that chemistry building have gone well.
Amendola is showing a lot of similar characteristics to Welker with his ability to find soft spots in zone coverage and his shiftiness to get open against man coverage.
But he's comparable in another regard as well.
Amendola is an outstanding route runner and Brady already has a good feel for him. The ball is out pre-break and on the $ consistently.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) August 6, 2013
"He's become a very dependable player for us," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Amendola. "He doesn't make many mental errors. He's a guy who is usually in the right spot and has a good understanding of defenses and what he's supposed to do. You can tell he's been in the league for four years."
The question with Amendola is his ability to stay healthy, but when reviewing his two most notable injuries (his dislocated elbow in 2011 and his dislocated clavicle in 2012), they are both nothing more than awkward falls that ended as badly as possible.
If he can avoid another such freak accident, he'll be a very productive player in 2013.
Dobson has already had an incredible start to training camp, showing a blend of size, speed and strength that we haven't seen in New England since the days of Randy Moss. Dobson measures 6'3", 200 pounds with 33-inch arms in length. He ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at his pro day in March.
The rookie from Marshall probably won't be The Freak from Marshall in his first year, but he presents a weapon on the outside the Patriots have sorely lacked for years.
He showed the ability to go deep and win one-on-one on the outside in college, but looking good in college and in practice is much different from looking good in NFL games, and it remains to be seen whether Dobson and Brady can remain on the same page at game speed. Reads have to happen within a second—sometimes a split-second of the snap.
Regardless of Dobson's size, corners will try to get in his pads and throw him off his rhythm. That's the best way to beat Brady and therefore the best way to beat his receivers. It will be up to Dobson to win those matchups at the line of scrimmage, a skill which his teammates have already noticed.
“He got good releases off the line," said cornerback Aqib Talib after one practice. "That’s what I think he does real good. Him, KT [Kenbrell Thompkins], they pretty good releasing off the line...Either you got it or you don’t. They got it."
If he has it, we'll know from an early stage, as that skill will be put to the test early and often. It will be up to Dobson to make defensive backs pay for doing that.
Thompkins had fairly modest stats at Cincinnati, but he has put his sure hands and quickness on display at Patriots training camp and looks like a lock for the roster at this point. Aiken's been making big plays since his UCF days but has yet to fulfill that potential in the NFL.
Both of those receivers have the size and skill set to win against press coverage and to stretch a defense vertically, but press coverage is not the only thing these receivers have to worry about. Opposing defenses could still challenge Dobson, Amendola and the other receivers by mixing up coverages.
It's not easy to confuse Brady with a coverage he hasn't seen, but teams might take the approach of trying to confuse his receivers instead, getting them to read things differently than their quarterback—which has been a problem for many other receivers to pass through Gillette Stadium.
That's the challenge these receivers will face.
The upshot in physical talent is immense, but it's the intangibles like chemistry with Brady, knowledge of the playbook and (in Amendola's case specifically) injuries that could present hang-ups in the change-over process.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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