In 2013, a lot of things changed for the New England Patriots offense. Gone were the days of wide receiver Wes Welker, running back Danny Woodhead and tight end Aaron Hernandez. Between 2012 and 2013, the Patriots lost a stunning 76 percent of the receptions from the previous year.
From 2013 to 2014, it appeared there would be a lot more continuity. Many of the receivers the Patriots had added the previous year were returning for another year in the system, which meant another year of familiarity. Things didn't turn out exactly the way people expected, though, with wide receiver Aaron Dobson failing to make a huge impact in his second year while Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce became afterthoughts, with Thompkins eventually finding his way out of New England.
Those events all paved the way for Brandon LaFell to take the cake as the top boundary receiver in the Patriots offense while Julian Edelman resumed his role as the top slot receiver—a spot that was meant for Danny Amendola. But as the year went on, even Amendola, who had failed to live up to expectations to that point, began to make a bigger impact.
Now, the Patriots have a legitimate top trio of wide receivers in their offense, and with that group sticking together for another year, the Patriots passing attack has true continuity for the first time in a long time.
When the Patriots signed Brandon LaFell last offseason, the move was met with cautious optimism. The Patriots have tried for years to find talented receivers in free agency that can come in and build chemistry with Tom Brady while also learning the Patriots' complicated offense. Thus, the expectations were kept reasonably low for LaFell in his first year in a Patriots uniform.
Few, if any, expected LaFell to put up career highs in receptions (74), yards (953) and touchdowns (7), and now, LaFell has the look of a receiver who could be a key to the Patriots offense for years to come.
The 6'3", 210-pound pass-catcher is the embodiment of a boundary receiver from a physical standpoint, although he may not have the dominant long speed or leaping ability that is often associated with playing on the perimeter of the offense. Those skills are helpful, but they are not make-or-break traits for a receiver in the Patriots offense.
The Patriots are more than content with LaFell's great feel for different coverages and how to run his routes to best beat those coverages.
Julian Edelman needs no introduction. The former college quarterback was the key in helping the Patriots transition into life without Welker, showing a knack for consistently finding soft spots in coverage and the toughness to make a catch over the middle and turn upfield with the ball.
The 5'10, 190-pound Welker clone has been every bit as effective as Welker was in his time in New England, and although he may not have started off his Patriots career with the same streak of 100-catch seasons, his quickness, sure hands and confidence have made him a favorite weapon of Tom Brady's.
That being said, don't pigeonhole Edelman as a slot receiver. According to Pro Football Focus, Edelman ran 40 percent of his routes from the slot, and 46 percent of his targets were on routes he ran out of the slot.
It would be more accurate to call Edelman a versatile Z receiver who can line up inside or outside, and who can be effective running routes from either spot.
The Patriots originally signed Danny Amendola in hopes that he could fill the void in the slot vacated by Welker. It took a couple of years for him to stay healthy, but Amendola finally began living up to those expectations in 2014 and coincidentally enough, he began to emerge thanks to an injury to Edelman toward the end of that season.
At 5'11" and 195 pounds, Amendola is a little bigger than Edelman, but Amendola has been the one finding himself lined up in the slot more frequently than his compatriot. According to Pro Football Focus, Amendola ran 79.9 percent of his routes while lined up in the slot, and 75.6 percent of his targets were from a slot alignment.
Amendola may not have been Welker's replacement from a volume perspective, but his role has been similar in description and he could find himself worked into the offense even more than before now that he's begun to show the full capacity of what he can do in the Patriots offense.
The Patriots drafted Aaron Dobson in the second round in 2013 in hopes that he could become the X receiver they'd been searching for ever since Randy Moss left the fold in 2010. It's just a coincidence that both men attended Marshall.
The 6'3", 200-pound receiver has the skill set to play on the perimeter in the NFL, with the long speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash) to burn defenses on deep routes and the height and leaping ability to win jump balls. He also has a background as a sure-handed pass-catcher; according to John Pollard of STATS, he was targeted 92 times in 2012 and did not drop a single pass.
Thus, you can guess that the Patriots were surprised when he dropped six of the 74 passes thrown his way in his rookie season, and when he also failed to provide a consistent vertical threat for their offense, catching only three passes that traveled 20 yards or more despite 17 targets on those throws, according to Pro Football Focus.
After an injury-plagued 2014 campaign, Dobson is facing a make-or-break season in 2015.
With Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell and Brian Tyms on the Patriots roster, Tom Brady will not be pining for big-bodied receivers like he was when he referred to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola as "pygmies" in 2014.
Tyms has shown his ability as a deep threat and a jump-ball threat in training camp and other practices over the past two offseasons, but has not had much of an opportunity to put those skills on display in meaningful regular-season games. He caught five passes on 11 targets for 82 yards and one touchdown in 2014.
The Patriots could be gearing up Tyms to take over Dobson's role as a primary backup X receiver, but that role will not be handed to him. He'll have to earn it.
The 5'11, 205-pound Josh Boyce was one of a few wide receivers who were expected to make a big impact as rookies in 2013, but since entering the NFL, Boyce has had little if any impact on his team. He caught nine passes for 121 yards as a rookie, and had nine kick returns for 214 yards that year as well, but spent most of the 2014 season on the practice squad.
Now, there appears to be even more competition for Boyce's spot on the roster with the Patriots having brought in the likes of Jonathan Krause and Chris Harper, two receivers whose builds are similar to Boyce's and who also offer value as return specialists.