Standing 6’3” and with 4.4 speed, wide receiver Aaron Dobson can be a target anywhere on the field. Fellow 2013 draft pick Josh Boyce ran a 4.38 40-yard dash, the fourth-fastest time by a receiver at the NFL combine. Rookie free agents WR Kenbrell Thompkins and tight end Zach Sudfeld have been surprises through training camp and the preseason as they displayed a precocious feel at the NFL level.
But, after three preseason games, quarterback Tom Brady is yet to connect with any of his receivers for a completion of 40 yards or more.
New England for the most part isn’t having problems moving the ball through the air. Brady certainly is developing chemistry with his new targets, particularly with Thompkins, Sudfeld and free-agent addition Danny Amendola.
Along the way they connected for several big plays (20 yards or more), with a 37-yard completion to Thompkins against Detroit being the longest.
There’s nothing actually wrong with the passing game, as the Patriots’ aerial attack has ranked in the top five the past two years without having a consistent deep attack. But part of New England’s motivation to almost completely overhaul the receiving corps was to improve the ability to generate more explosive plays through the air.
Out the door from the 2012 team are Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd, Donte’ Stallworth and Wes Welker, Brady’s favorite target over the past five years by far (Aaron Hernandez was released following his arrest). The new look receivers are younger bigger more athletic and timed faster in order to stretch the field.
Even the addition of Amendola, described as a Welker clone, is an athletic upgrade with better size and speed than Welker.
Yet with all the speed available to Brady, it is runs by running backs Stevan Ridley (63 yards) and LeGarrette Blount (51) that have been New England’s biggest plays so far.
New England hasn’t had an outside explosive threat since it traded disgruntled WR Randy Moss in 2010. The Patriots unsuccessfully tried to replace him with the receiver formerly known as Chad Ochocinco in 2011 and last year with Lloyd.
The passing game continued to hum even though Ochocinco and Lloyd failed to deliver the big plays the Patriots were hoping for. But generating explosive plays would enhance an already-potent offense.
The lack of explosive weapons to stretch the field contributed to New England’s defeat in the AFC Championship Game as the Baltimore Ravens flooded the middle of the field, suffocating the Patriots’ primary region of attack. An outside threat with deep speed would loosen up any defense, opening up the whole field for the Patriots offense.
But all the quick-twitch muscles, tape measures nor stop watches compensate for chemistry and trust, which is a work in progress for Brady and his new bunch. It’s going to take time for Brady to have confidence that his receivers will be where he expects them to be every time.
It’s a similar story for Brady to believe his receivers will make the play when Brady has to throw them open, or even go to them when they are covered. Coming down with the ball when in a crowd of three defenders or keeping one’s feet inbounds while falling out of bounds will do wonders for Brady’s belief in his young targets.
There’s no need to panic over the absence of explosiveness right now. Back in 2007 New England’s passing game didn’t produce a single completion of 40 yards or more in the preseason. That didn’t stop Brady and Moss from tearing the top off of defenses all season long as New England broke offensive records.
Moss didn’t play a single preseason snap before head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels unleashed him on an unsuspecting league. The lack of explosive plays this preseason could be another case of Belichick not showing his hand to the NFL in glorified scrimmages.
But the preseason means something for developing chemistry. Brady and the receivers have tried to go over the top on a handful of occasions. They just haven’t connected yet. Whether it’s because the receivers are still learning to beat press coverage or timing not yet developed from familiarity, it doesn’t happen overnight.
The return of TE Rob Gronkowski will certainly add explosiveness to the offense. He will be one of very few targets Brady is familiar with and trusts completely. When they will be back on the field together is unknown, though, as Gronkowski recovers from offseason surgeries to his back and forearm.
In the meantime, Brady will try to click with his receivers through repetition after repetition in practice. Brady likely won’t play much in the preseason finale against the New York Giants, if at all.
Even with a new group of inexperienced receivers, the Patriots are expected to have one of the top offenses. The passing game will be great because of Brady. It would be better once Brady and his new receivers get on the same page and consistently connect for those game-changing explosive plays.
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