New England Patriots: Predicting Leaders in Every Receiving Category

Marc FreshmanContributor IJuly 25, 2012

New England Patriots: Predicting Leaders in Every Receiving Category

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    The Patriots have the two best tight ends in the NFL. They have a receiver with over 100 receptions and over 1,100 yards in four of his last five seasons. They have another receiver who led the league in receiving yards in 2010. They have a three-time world champion at quarterback who just threw over 5,000 yards.

    Now, all they have to do is win the Super Bowl.

    It's a tall order for most teams, but it really isn't too much to ask from the Patriots.

    This is a rare offensive unit, layered with diverse talent and exceptional athleticism, glued together by a disciplined work ethic which keeps these men in harmony, both on and off the field.

    This is it. This is the team. 

    It would be a shame to waste this opportunity. We can't wait until 2013 or 2014. The time is now.

    Here's a look at New England's 2012 offense with predicted leaders in every receiving category.

Total Receptions

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    Wes Welker's worst statistical season with the Patriots came in 2010. He had 86 receptions, which pales in comparison to his 123 receptions from 2009 and his 122 receptions from 2011. 

    But here's the funny thing: Even though 86 receptions is a dismal number for Welker, it's still a pretty high number for some of the league's best receivers.

    Consider the evidence: In 2010, Andre Johnson had 86 receptions, Brandon Marshall had 86 and Marques Colston had 84. In 2011, Victor Cruz had 82 receptions, Brandon Marshall had 81 and Larry Fitzgerald had 80.

    These are elite receivers in their prime who are catching balls at an elite rate, and yet, Welker still had as many (or more) receptions in his worst season in New England. 

    In 2011, Welker had 26 more receptions than Calvin Johnson.

    In 2011, Welker ranked No. 1 in receptions. The player at No. 2 was 22 catches behind Welker.

    In 2005, Larry Fitzgerald had a career-high 103 receptions. That's 20 less catches than Welker at his best and only 17 catches better than Welker at his worst.

    This point is this: Wes Welker is a statistical maniac. His consistency is off-the-charts. He's had four seasons with 100-plus receptions in the last five years. That bodes well for his chances to do it again this season. 

    Predicted Leader in Receptions: Wes Welker

Receiving Yards

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    In 2011, Wes Welker ranked second in this category with a sensational total of 1,569 yards. Rob Gronkowski put up some dazzling yardage as well, ranking sixth overall with 1,327 yards.

    In 2010, Brandon Lloyd ranked first overall with 1,448 yards.

    Amazingly, these three guys are all wearing the same jersey now. That's a pretty scary thought, considering that each of them are potentially on the verge of having career seasons.

    If Aaron Hernandez joins the party with a career season of his own, we could be looking at an unstoppable offense.

    So, who's going to lead the Patriots in receiving yards in 2012?

    I'm going with Wes Welker.

    His dependability is too extreme to ignore. In five years with the Patriots, he's had a grand total of 6,105 yards. That's astonishing.

    Plus, he's coming off his most prolific season yet, which means his game is at it's peak or near it's peak. All of this bodes well for his stock heading into the new season.

    Predicted Leader in Receiving Yards: Wes Welker

Average Yards Per Reception

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    In 2010, Brandon Lloyd averaged a whopping 18.8 yards per reception.

    When you compare that to the 2011 averages from superstars Calvin Johnson and Victor Cruz (17.5 and 18.7 yards, respectively), you begin to understand why Patriot Nation is so excited about this guy.

    As if Lloyd's production wasn't impressive enough, consider the fact that Calvin Johnson and Victor Cruz were working with top-tier quarterbacks who threw near or over 5,000 yards. Comparatively speaking, Lloyd was working with peanuts.

    But today's a new day. Lloyd's working with Tom Brady now.

    Expect big things.

    Predicted Leader in Yards Per Reception: Brandon Lloyd

Yards After Catch

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    This category could easily go to Wes Welker, considering he topped the ranking last season with 732 yards after the catch. Rob Gronkowski ranked fourth overall with 656 yards after the catch.

    So, who's going to lead in this category in 2012? Welker or Gronkowski?

    The answer depends upon two things: Gronkowski's physical progress from his offseason surgery and his ability to mentally bounce back from the injury.

    I'm inclined to think he'll bounce back in a big way, just like Tom Brady did in 2009 after his injury in 2008. There's a brotherhood of toughness in New England, so I'm not worried.    

    As usual, Gronkowski will refuse to submit to tackles. Instead, he'll wrestle through them as if the injury never happened, leaving us to worry about his health throughout the entire season.

    I'm giving this one to Gronkowski but only by a very slim margin. Welker will surely have something to say about all of this.

    Predicted Leader in Yards After Catch: Rob Gronkowski

Receiving Targets

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    Wes Welker ranked second overall in this category last season with 172 targets. Brandon Lloyd ranked fifth overall with 150 targets. Lloyd also ranked highly in 2010 (fourth overall with 153 targets).  

    So, who takes the crown for this category?

    Brady and Lloyd will certainly have their honeymoon stage. Gronkowski and Hernandez will be heavily targeted, as well. I certainly don't expect Welker to run away with this one. 

    However, it's worth noting that Hernandez, Gronkowski and Lloyd will all be drinking from the same pool of yards. Brady will probably even up his ball distribution amongst them.

    This is especially true if Hernandez has a Gronkowski-type of season, which would even out their targets (Gronkowski had 124 targets last season; Hernandez had 113).

    Lloyd, Hernandez and Gronkowski will end the season with monster target numbers, but it's tough to imagine any of them blowing the others out of the water.

    Welker, on the other hand, doesn't really have to divide his yards with anybody. He's the slot guy. He's the chain-mover. He's automatic. Of all the receivers and tight ends, his yards will be the least intruded upon by the others.

    Also, Welker's been with Brady through the good times and the bad times. That has to count for something.   

    Predicted Leader in Receiving Targets: Wes Welker

Longest Reception

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    It feels justifiable to give this one to Wes Welker, given his ability to water bug his way through a defensive scheme, delicately catch a floating ball and explode downfield for a 99-yard touchdown. He did it last season, and he can certainly do it again.

    But I'm taking the road less traveled on this one. I'm going with the darkhorse—Julian Edelman.

    Last year, Edelman demonstrated his speedy footwork when he ran a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown. He also ran a 94-yard return for a touchdown in 2010.

    Edelman has clearly made his mark on special teams, but he still hasn't fleshed-out his abilities as a receiver, nor has he proven that he's capable of claiming this category for himself. Nevertheless, I have faith in him. Maybe, that faith is far-fetched, but I truly believe he can contribute as a receiver.

    Thus far, Edelman's career as a receiver has been hijacked by his own versatility, which has forced him into a Troy Brown-type of role. He's become New England's "jack of all trades," playing both sides of the ball and spreading himself rather thin.

    Hopefully, that "jack of all trades" thing is done. The Patriots have a young and diverse secondary, so there's no need to throw Edelman out there as a defensive back any longer. And with any luck, Nate Ebner will be our ace on special teams.

    This should free up Edelman to develop his skills as a receiver. One long reception is exactly what he needs to build his confidence.

    Predicting him as the leader for this category is a longshot, but I'm comfortable with that. Maybe, he needs a little push to get him over the top.

    Predicted Leader in Longest Reception: Julian Edelman

Receiving Yards Per Game

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    Wes Welker ranked second in the league last year with an average of 98.1 yards per game. Calvin Johnson edged him out with a staggering average of 105.1 yards. Victor Cruz, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Smith rounded out the top five.

    Come 2012, this ranking will feature most of the usual suspects. The only newcomer will be Brandon Lloyd, although he really isn't a newcomer at all; in 2010, Lloyd claimed the second spot with 90.5 yards per game.

    It's very conceivable that we'll see Welker and Lloyd make the top five this season.

    The question is: Are you picking Welker or Lloyd to make the top three?

    I'm going with Welker.

    The fact that he was so close to Calvin Johnson last season is shocking, but it also makes perfect sense. Welker is the model of consistency. Then again, he's also playing this season under a one-year contract, which flies in the face of the term "consistency."

    Nevertheless, Welker will walk away with 100 yards per game this season.

    Whether or not that'll help him get a long-term contract is a different story.

    Predicted Leader in Yards Per Game: Wes Welker

Receiving First Downs

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    Last season, Wes Welker tied for the top spot in the league with 77 first downs. Rob Gronkowski ranked fifth overall with 69 first downs.

    Close numbers but the edge goes to Welker. He'll keep getting those crucial looks from Tom Brady, especially with Gronkowski being smothered with suffocating defense throughout the season.

    I'm also factoring in the diversity of New England's offense, which foreshadows some more evenly distributed numbers for the big guns but similar numbers for the slot receiver.

    Opposing teams will need to pick their poison when they play the Patriots. New England simply has too many weapons to cover them all. Therefore, someone is likely to be a little more open than everyone else.

    Teams will most likely elect to free up Welker for first-down yardage in an effort to resist the big play from one of the tight ends or wide receivers.

    Considering Welker's staggering numbers, it seems strange to expect any defense to give him airspace. But again, if you're an opposing team, it's all about picking your poison.

    Welker simply doesn't rank as high on the threat meter as someone like Lloyd or Gronkowski. He isn't viewed as the guy who's going to "beat you." Fairly or unfairly, that's the perception of Welker.

    Did that perception factor into New England's decision to sign him for the short-term instead of the long-term? You make the call. 

    Predicted Leader in Receiving First Downs: Wes Welker

Receiving Fumbles

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    This really isn't a category you want to lead. Nevertheless, someone has to do it.

    Interestingly, though, no player from New England made the top ranks last season. Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney barely qualified for the rank with a single fumble each.

    The same was true in 2010. Jabar Gaffney and Deion Branch each had a one fumble.

    There really isn't a precise way to analyze this one, considering how well-disciplined the Patriots are. They protect the football. Ultimately, I have to give the "prize" to the guy who fumbled in 2010 and 2011.

    Predicted Leader in Receiving Fumbles: Jabar Gaffney

Receptions over 20 Yards

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    Last season, Rob Gronkowski ranked fifth overall in this category with 22 receptions over 20 yards.

    Wes Welker was right on his heels, ranking sixth overall with 21 receptions over 20 yards.

    These numbers are fascinatingly close, considering that Welker has the perception of being a "small-play guy" while Gronkowski is known as the "big-play guy." Of course, there's some truth to these stereotypes, but the raw numbers really put a microscope on the fine line that divides these guys.

    According to the numbers, Welker actually reveals himself to be a big-play guy. He's just not "the" big-play guy. He's not Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald.

    Still, though, Welker's numbers are high enough to make you nervous about the idea of him playing for a rival AFC team, let alone an AFC East team like the Jets. That, alone, should've been enough for the Patriots to lock him down for a few years.

    Another interesting component here: In 2010, Brandon Lloyd ranked second in this category with 23 receptions over 20 yards. This could get very interesting!

    Predicted Leader in Receptions Over 20 Yards: Wes Welker

Receiving Touchdowns

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    Rob Gronkowski ranked first in this category last season with 17 receiving touchdowns. No receiver or tight end has caught more touchdowns in a season since 2007 (Randy Moss, 23 touchdowns).

    It's conceivable that we'll see a dip in Gronkowski's production next season, but I don't see it affecting the ultimate result of his scoring.

    Sure, Gronkowski will sacrifice some field yardage to Brandon Lloyd. He'll also sacrifice significant yards to his partner-in-crime—Aaron Hernandez. Nevertheless, he's too efficient of a scorer to bet against. He's got those big meaty paws, coupled with the feet of a dancer. He's quick and limber, too.

    He's an athletic freak of nature. More specifically, he's a tight end/wide receiver hybrid. He's redefining his position in this modern league. 

    Bottom line: Gronkowski's prowess as a scorer is too strong to be eclipsed. Even Wes Welker can't take this category away from him. 

    Predicted Leader in Receiving Touchdowns: Rob Gronkowski