Considering the seemingly weekly body blows the New England Patriots endured this season, the end of their 2013 season feels a bit different from recent devastating endings. While the Pats and their fans can be disappointed that they were not more competitive in the AFC Championship Game, the reality is that they were the underdogs, not the unassailable favorites they have been before.
However, even with better injury luck, the Patriots passing game currently looks like the variable holding the team back. As unfathomable as it may seem, Tom Brady and the passing offense is perhaps the weakest unit on the team (assuming Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly can return and shore up the run defense).
Brady himself is still among the elite quarterbacks in the league, but the lack of variety and weapons in the passing game means that he has almost no margin for error. Consider how many people pinned the loss to the Denver Broncos on Brady, who performed well apart from two errant deep passes.
Unfortunately, Brady could not afford to miss those throws and still lead the 2013 Patriots to the Super Bowl. Bill Belichick knew that and will surely seek to increase his quarterback's margin for error in 2014. Here are a few steps the Patriots can take toward achieving that goal.
Re-Sign Julian Edelman
In reality, the odds of Julian Edelman remaining a Patriot are likely less than 50-50. Per Spotrac.com, New England currently has just $2.4 million of cap space. That will change, as the Pats could create space by restructuring deals (Wilfork, Logan Mankins) and cutting certain players (Isaac Sopoaga, Adrian Wilson).
However, teams cannot actually spend to the cap, as they need to save money for draft picks and in-season moves. Moreover, certain players like Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty might eat into that cap space if they re-sign in New England (or extend, in McCourty's case).
Nevertheless, it is absolutely imperative that the Patriots somehow find a budget for Julian Edelman. The argument against signing Edelman seems self-evident—his skill set overlaps with that of Danny Amendola, and committing to both would invest a lot of money in the slot.
But simply dismissing Edelman-Amendola because of an overlap in playing style is fallacious. The Pats' passing game may have only been reliable in the short-to-intermediate distances, but it's not a stretch to say that Brady may have led the league's best passing attack in that area of the field:
|Tom Brady's 2013 Stats on Short to Intermediate Passes|
|Range||Cmp. - Att.||Yds.||TD-INT||QB Rating|
|0-9 Yds. Left||47-of-67||363||2-0||93.1|
|0-9 Yds. Mid||149-of-207||1419||5-3||92.6|
|0-9 Yds. Right||54-of-77||371||3-1||88.2|
|10-19 Yds. Left||16-of-36||295||5-0||112.8|
|10-19 Yds. Mid||53-of-89||920||5-2||104.1|
|10-19 Yds. Right||12-of-34||213||2-0||77.2|
Those numbers are especially scary when considering that opposing defenses could key in on Edelman, due to the Patriots' lack of a deep or outside-the-numbers option (more on that later). For all the criticism he received at times, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels actually did a great job of devising nearly indefensible pick-and-run routes using the slot tandem:
Just because the Patriots are weak in other facets of the passing game does not mean they should minimize their greatest strength. If New England could decisively upgrade its vertical game with a realistic free agent, that would certainly be ideal, but the outlook is not promising in that regard.
Eric Decker is almost certainly out of the Patriots' price range, as tantalizing as his signing would be. Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Britt are boom-or-bust propositions and come with character concerns. The Pats might be able to nab someone like Emmanuel Sanders or Andre Roberts, but how much would that really move the needle?
No, New England's best free-agent receiver option is already in house. The Pats gambled that they could replace Wes Welker's slot production and were extremely fortunate that Edelman fulfilled the role so ably in place of the oft-injured Amendola. Hopefully, the team learns from its mistake last offseason and does not strip Brady of his best security blanket once again.
Sink or Swim with the Second-Years
Throughout much of the 2013 season, Patriots fans lived in a world of hypotheticals with their rookie receivers. Perhaps the offense would possess a deep threat if Aaron Dobson could develop, if Kenbrell Thompkins received more snaps, if Josh Boyce could stay healthy.
While injuries derailed the trio and ultimately rendered all three irrelevant by the postseason, it's not as though the year was a total failure. Pats fans may remember the early-season frustrations more than anything, but by midseason, each one had shown signs that he could be a viable part of the offense's future.
Dobson in particular could become a real weapon for Brady next season. Fans may scoff at that notion, remembering his chronic dropitis early in the season. But if we divide the 12 games Dobson played into two six-game splits, we can see that not only did the drops tail off, but he was also far more explosive:
|Aaron Dobson's 2013 Splits|
Granted, his usage was minimal by season's end, as he did not receive more than three targets in a single game following a Week 11 foot injury that hampered him the rest of the year. However, with health and another offseason to develop, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss believes something resembling the breakout sophomore campaign of Cincinnati Bengals receiver Marvin Jones could be a realistic possibility:
The second-year Bengals receiver was sensational this season (10 TDs) and when I was doing my tape study, he jumped out to me. I think he's the example I am going to point to this offseason as what the Patriots hope will happen, developmental-wise, with Dobson, Boyce and Thompkins. Jones was a fifth-round draft choice out of Cal and he made a huge leap from his rookie to second season. I think we have a tendency to want the quick fix on these areas and don't factor in player development.
Thompkins and Boyce are a little trickier, as the former peaked early, while the latter never really got off the ground. Thompkins had his best game of the season in Week 4, when he came up with a six-catch, 127-yard performance against the Atlanta Falcons. The undrafted rookie lived up to the Pats' highest hopes that day, using his size to both gain position in short routes over the middle and make plays in the air on deep passes.
Boyce, meanwhile, could at least make an impact as a kick returner if nothing else. Apart from a couple huge returns against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17, LeGarrette Blount was wholly unspectacular as the primary returner. In limited snaps this year, Boyce showed impressive open-field speed and elusiveness, as embodied by this GIF.
As I've outlined in the previous section, the Patriots cannot realistically splurge on a huge-impact free-agent receiver. It seems unlikely there are any 2007 Randy Moss situations around, where the Pats can add a quick fix to the passing game.
Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce have different strengths and thus the potential to infuse the offense with significant versatility. In 2014, the Patriots should turn to them not out of necessity, as they did this season, but to see if any can emerge as impactful weapons.
Of course, the Patriots are unlikely to totally stand pat. New England needs a better backup plan in case Rob Gronkowski's injury bug bites again, or if the second-year trio falls flat.
The draft looks like the most likely avenue for an addition. While the Pats probably aren't looking at receiver with all the youth at the position, tight end looks like a target. The Patriots are most dangerous and versatile when they can employ two tight ends, creating mismatches all over the field. And that speaks nothing of Gronk's spotty medical record:
Enter Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Seferian-Jenkins had a highly productive Huskies career, amassing 146 catches, 1,840 yards and 21 touchdowns over three seasons. At 6'6" and 276 pounds, Seferian-Jenkins has the basketball background that has been en vogue among tight ends, and he really does look like the latest in the line of freakishly athletic specimens at the position.
He's had some off-field issues (most notably a DUI that led to a suspension), and the Patriots may be wary of that after last offseason's events. But on paper, Seferian-Jenkins could resemble the tight end New England could pair him with, per WalterFootball.com's Charlie Campbell:
Tight ends have taken the NFL by storm in recent years and Seferian-Jenkins looks like the best tight end prospect to come along since the 2010 NFL Draft that featured a banner crop of tight ends. Seferian-Jenkins is a physical specimen who looks like he could be a high-impact tight end in the mold of the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski or the Saints' Jimmy Graham.
Seferian-Jenkins could become the complete package as a tight end. He is a fantastic receiver with the potential to be a top blocker. In the ground game, Seferian-Jenkins is generally effective on his blocks. He doesn't sustain his blocks as long as one would like and could use more force and attitude. That being said, Seferian-Jenkins flashes some impressive blocking in pass protection on edge-rushers.He could stand to improve more as a blocker for the NFL, but definitely has the skill set to be a good one.
Investing in Seferian-Jenkins would likely entail the Patriots' first-round pick. If New England goes elsewhere (like defensive tackle or interior offensive line), there are multiple mid-round options the Pats could consider.
Notre Dame's Troy Niklas, Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz and Georgia's Arthur Lynch all possess similar size to Seferian-Jenkins—all three are 6'5" or 6'6" and 258 to 264 pounds. None have a ceiling as high, but all would allow the Patriots to play more of those two-tight end sets they covet.
It's never wise to draft purely on need, and the Patriots are good for a surprise or two in the draft every year. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine Belichick and Co. passing on a deep and highly talented tight end crop.
Patriots fans are understandably despondent that this likeable team came up short. Nine years without a championship is not going to earn sympathy from places like Cleveland or Minnesota, but with Tom Brady turning 37 next season, the window of a once-in-a-lifetime era is slowly closing.
So while Pats fans have a right to be greedy for another Super Bowl, that does not mean they should be upset when the team invariably refuses to make an impulsive move. It's not about the Patriots refusing to make "win-now" moves; it's about an organization that understands the value of a deep roster.
This past season should hammer that notion home. Remember when everyone was clamoring for the Pats to splurge on Mike Wallace and Ed Reed in free agency? If New England had dished out big money and neglected the rest of the roster, it seems fair to assume the injury-plagued Pats would have lost a few wins (and perhaps missed the playoffs entirely).
Sure, the Patriots could dole out a doozy ducat for Decker, but what if that costs them Talib and Edelman? Is that really a step forward?
The Foxboro faithful was undoubtedly frustrated watching Peyton Manning live out the twilight of his career throwing to the NFL's best receiving corps. But consider how Denver acquired Manning's weapons—Demaryius Thomas was a low first-rounder, Decker was a third-rounder, Julius Thomas was a fourth-rounder, and Wes Welker was a low-cost free agent.
According to Spotrac, the quartet combined for a $8.74 million cap hit in 2013. The Patriots are trying to build a similar cost-controlled corps for Brady. It may not be the assertion fans want to hear, but internal development and minor tweaks are the best way for the Patriots passing game to rebound in 2014.