When we evaluate wide receivers, we typically do so in a vacuum. It's easier to break down Player X's route running and hands out of context, as we can gape at his measurables and talk about isolated traits without grounding that player in a specific system.
Of course, that's not how football really operates. In the context of the New England Patriots offense, playing wide receiver means something significantly different from playing wide receiver in, say, Washington State's "Air Raid" offense under Mike Leach.
Out of context, the Patriots don't have much talent at all at the position, with a converted college quarterback, mid-tier free-agent signing and oft-injured slot receiver as the top targets. However, while few would stump for this group as an elite receiving corps, their understanding of New England's option-oriented system was good enough to win a Super Bowl four months ago.
So when evaluating the wide receivers on the Patriots roster, we're looking at how they might potentially fit with Tom Brady (and Jimmy Garoppolo) and his preferences, rather than thinking about physical traits in a vacuum. Breaking things out into depth-chart groupings, here's a look at every wide receiver currently on the roster (excluding special teamer Matthew Slater) and what role they might play in 2015.
|2015 Preliminary Patriots WR Depth Chart|
|Flanker ("Z")||Slot ("H")||Split End ("X")|
|Starter:||Julian Edelman||Danny Amendola||Brandon LaFell|
|Top Backup:||Amendola/Brandon Gibson||Edelman/Josh Boyce||Aaron Dobson/Brandon Gibson|
|Reserves:||Zach D'Orazio||Jonathan Krause||Brian Tyms|
|Chris Harper||Greg Orton|
Flanker: Julian Edelman
Split End: Brandon LaFell
Slot: Danny Amendola
It's worth talking about these three in conjunction with each other because of how the Patriots geared their offense towards "11" personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) by the end of the season. It feels like New England wants to become "12" personnel team, having acquired Tim Wright and Scott Chandler the past two offseasons, and perhaps the offense reverts to a two-tight end base in 2015.
For the 2014 season as a whole, the Patriots actually played more 12 than 11 personnel. Football Outsiders' internal charting stats pegged New England as a 12 team on 41 percent of its offensive snaps and an 11 team on just 28 percent of its snaps. This makes sense when recalling how sparingly Amendola played until the final two regular-season games through the postseason run.
When the Pats did turn to three-receiver sets as their base offense, New England was able to exploit the quickness of their receivers, which typically allowed them to win off the line of scrimmage. Here's a 3x1 formation the Patriots used to great success throughout the playoffs. Rob Gronkowski is the lone iso receiver split to the strong side, while the other three receivers are lined up on the weak side:
Because of Gronk's presence, the Baltimore Ravens essentially commit three defenders his way, if you include the single-high safety peeking in the tight end's direction. Thus, every single weak-side receiver has a juicy one-on-one. Amendola turns out to be the beneficiary in this instance, as his man, Matt Elam, plays too far off and misses his tackle, leading to a second-quarter touchdown:
This is a perfect example of how a scheme-and-player-strength marriage should work. Individually, the Patriots didn't run many isolation routes designed to garner huge chunks. Partially for that reason, Edelman and LaFell were among the league's least impressive statistical duo last season. FO's DVOA metric, an opponent-adjusted measure of success rate, pegged LaFell 33rd and Edelman 42nd among receivers with at least 50 targets last season. Had Amendola played enough snaps to qualify, he would have ranked 79th.
We know what this trio can do with Brady, and whenever No. 12 returns to the starting lineup, the Pats shouldn't have any issues turning to three-wide sets on passing downs. However, will Garoppolo be able to read through these route progressions in the same manner? We obviously won't have that answer until September, but it's important to remember that his Eastern Illinois offense was more of a one-read scheme, far unlike what New England employs.
Going back to Garoppolo's Week 17 cameo against the Buffalo Bills, the Pats appeared to use a lot more motion to give the then-rookie quarterback a leg up, since motion forces the defense to reveal its hand in playing either man or zone. With Amendola and LaFell in the lineup, New England actually didn't dial things back much—if anything, the Pats used more vertical route concepts to accentuate Garoppolo's arm strength and deep-ball accuracy.
Here's an example from the third quarter of that game. New England utilized a play-action stretch concept to create a moving pocket for Garoppolo and scramble the defense's pass rush. This is only a two-man route concept, but the play action held the linebackers long enough to allow Garoppolo to step into the throw and deliver a strike on the deep dig route:
These are the types of schematic wins the Pats will need to move the ball so long as Garoppolo is under center. We can't really judge much from that Buffalo film, considering that Edelman and Gronk were inactive and Garoppolo was constantly under siege playing behind a shoddy reserve offensive line. However, defensive coordinators will invariably ratchet up the pressure against Garoppolo, which will force New England receivers to win quickly on the release to provide the young quarterback a defined read.
What the Bills game does suggest is that the Pats might not fall into a conservative passing shell. The deep ball is one of Garoppolo's best assets, and he's not built to stand in the pocket and prod the defense like Brady does. The easy predefined throws will be in the game plan, of course, but given Bill Belichick's proclivity to highlighting his players' strengths, we should also expect more moving pockets and deep shots than we would under a Brady-led offense.
On the Bubble
4. Brandon Gibson
5. Aaron Dobson
Given the depth at tight end and New England's apparent preference for two-tight end sets, the Patriots don't figure to keep more than four or five wide receivers on the final 53-man roster. Consequently, while Gibson and Dobson have strong opportunities to vie for one of the last spots, they're potentially competing directly against each other.
Of the two, the 27-year-old Gibson might actually possess more upside, though he hasn't been the same since tearing his patellar tendon in October of 2013. In six-and-a-half games for the Miami Dolphins that year, Gibson finished with 30 receptions and three touchdowns, separating himself as Ryan Tannehill's No. 2 receiver despite the flashy offseason acquisition of Mike Wallace.
The advanced stats also suggest that Gibson was coming into his own before the knee injury. According to FO's wide receiver metrics, Gibson posted a quietly solid season in 2012, his final campaign with the St. Louis Rams. Gibson's 23.4 percent DVOA ranked 11th among receivers with at least 50 targets, ahead of stars like Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones. Moreover, his 16.3 percent DVOA in his 2013 half season would have ranked 14th had he played enough to qualify.
However, the Pats rightly did not pay for past performance, buying low after Gibson fell down Miami's depth chart last season en route to his lowest receptions and yardage totals since his rookie year in 2009. Per Spotrac, the vet's one-year, $750,000 deal contains just $40,000 in bonus money, a small-potatoes total the Pats can absorb on their books if Gibson doesn't regain his legs in training camp.
Conversely, New England made a much higher investment in former second-rounder Aaron Dobson. After an inconsistent rookie year that nevertheless showed flashes of promise, Dobson suffered a year from hell in 2014. Setbacks from offseason foot surgery caused him to miss the majority of training camp and preseason, and recurrent hamstring injuries limited him to three catches over four games and eventually landed him on injured reserve.
Having accrued just three receptions in 2014, history suggests the odds are heavily stacked against Dobson ever turning in a relevant career. Since the merger, there have been just seven wide receivers drafted in the second round or higher who played at least four games and accrued three or fewer receptions. This list won't encourage those hoping for a bounce-back season from Dobson:
|1997||Alex Van Dyke||26|
There are examples of receivers who have started slowly and rebounded to become stars, most notably Tim Brown. Dobson is healthy and participating in OTAs this offseason, and injuries have played a big role in stunting his development thus far. If he stays healthy, there's at least cautious reason for optimism.
However, both Gibson and Dobson face uphill climbs because of their lack of value on special teams. New England is really never in a four-receiver set, so barring injury, either would still likely be a game-day scratch if he made the roster. An impressive preseason could make that insurance policy worth keeping around, given the checkered injury histories of Edelman and Amendola, but it's hard to imagine both perimeter split ends cracking the roster.
6. Brian Tyms
7. Josh Boyce
If Gibson and/or Dobson falter, Tyms and Boyce would be the most direct beneficiaries. However, I've placed them a rung below the former duo, given that these two lack the same amount of game experience. They're more familiar names given the time they've spent on New England's active roster, but Tyms and Boyce are just a cut above the long shots.
Tyms surprised just by making the roster after a preseason in which he posted an impressive 17.1 yards per catch on 11 receptions, including two touchdowns. The third-year receiver was essentially limited to running "9" routes as a clear out option last year, though he did have an impressive 43-yard touchdown in double coverage against the Buffalo Bills.
Former fourth-rounder Boyce actually didn't make the team out of training camp last summer, though the Pats signed him to the practice squad and stashed him there for the majority of the season. Boyce had a brief window of opportunity near the end of the 2013 season as a slot receiver, but an ankle injury shelved him before he could make an impression.
The TCU product continued to grind away last year, as evidenced by his practice player of the year recognition. With Edelman having evolved into a more versatile threat, Boyce might actually be the most natural slot replacement should Amendola go down. Boyce has always possessed the quickness and lateral agility (as this juke illustrates), so if a third season helps him develop some chemistry with Brady or Garoppolo, that would significantly aid his roster chances.
The Long Shots
8. Greg Orton
9. Jonathan Krause
10. Chris Harper
11. Zach D'Orazio
None of these players are particularly likely to make the 53-man roster, but we could have said the same thing about Tyms last summer or the former seventh-rounder Edelman six years ago. Indeed, whether it's seventh-rounders like David Givens or practice-squad castoffs like Jabar Gaffney, New England has been willing to give roster spots to players whose merits exceed their humble backgrounds.
Orton signed a futures contract in January 2014 but never played last season after being placed on injured reserve. His 6'3", 207-pound size is intriguing, as the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals previously gave Orton a look. Krause arrived on the Patriots practice squad off after the Cleveland Browns waived him in Week 8 and did enough to earn a futures contract himself in January. Minnesota Vikings receiver Charles Johnson is one former Browns practice-squader who went on to regular-season relevance, so maybe New England can strike lightning again with Krause.
Harper and D'Orazio are rookie free agents. The former is a 5'11", 185-pounder out of Cal, while the latter is a bigger 6'2", 213-pound target from Akron who replaced converted Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner on the roster. All these players will get a chance against other bottom-of-the-barrel roster hopefuls in the preseason, so if any can dominate like Tyms did, they'll be worth discussing further at that time.