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What Brandon LaFell Could Bring to New England Patriots Offense

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IOctober 23, 2015

New England Patriots' Brandon LaFell practices before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tim Sharp)
Tim Sharp/Associated Press

Slot receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are already carving up defenses underneath. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is already rumbling through the heart of defenses down the seam.

The only thing the New England Patriots offense is missing is exactly what Brandon LaFell brings to the table: a big-bodied boundary presence who can win one-on-one matchups on the outside, make contested catches, run crisp routes and pick up yards after the catch.

Nothing is certain yet, but there's at least a chance that LaFell could play on Sunday against the New York Jets. LaFell returned to practice on Wednesday, which starts the 21-day clock for the Patriots to make room for him and activate him onto the 53-man roster.

Mike Reiss @MikeReiss

Photo: WR Brandon LaFell practices for the first time this year after opening on the PUP list. https://t.co/7DEEG2eD67

The Patriots might need him this week more than ever. At 6'3" and 210 pounds, LaFell is the biggest receiver on the roster. As such, he is also one of the more gifted receivers they have when it comes to creating separation off a jam at the line of scrimmage.

Much like Rex Ryan's team, Todd Bowles' iteration is known for an aggressive and physical style of play at all levels of the defense, particularly in the secondary, where his cornerbacks are asked to play press coverage for long stretches.

LaFell would most likely draw Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie in coverage, since Cromartie struggles against the smaller, shiftier slot receivers like Edelman and Amendola. Darrelle Revis could be trailing Edelman, and Buster Skrine could be covering Amendola. 

Then who covers Rob Gronkowski? Do the Jets dare put linebackers like David Harris or Demario Davis or safeties like Calvin Pryor or Marcus Gilchrist on him one-on-one? Do they double Gronkowski with one of each?

The fact that we must ask this question is an indication of the kind of game-changing impact LaFell can have on the Patriots offense. 

Ball distribution
PlayerRecTgtRec ydsTD
Julian Edelman40564494
Dion Lewis26332561
Rob Gronkowski23374255
Danny Amendola17212031
Aaron Dobson9111010
Scott Chandler811881
Keshawn Martin67951
LeGarrette Blount22251
Source: ProFootballFocus.com

To this point in the season, the Patriots' lack of a boundary threat has forced Gronkowski to line up on the boundary more frequently than usual. Once LaFell comes back, though, Gronkowski can return to a more full-time role in the middle of the offense, be it as a blocker or running routes down the seam. He might draw double teams in that area, but it will only help open things up for LaFell on the boundary, as he will be drawing a lot of one-on-one coverage without safety help.

In turn, it will also help Edelman and Amendola, as they will most likely have a much clearer path to the middle of the field with the linebackers preoccupied.

Brady has focused most of his energy in short routes and throws between the numbers so far this season. He has hit 126 of his 160 aimed pass attempts (78.8 percent) that traveled anywhere from behind the line of scrimmage to nine yards downfield. LaFell is not quite a "deep threat" in the truest sense of the term, but he caught 33 of his 87 passes (37.9 percent) on routes where he was targeted 10 yards or more downfield.

Plus, he was the team's second-leading receiver in yards per reception in 2014 behind only Gronkowski. 

Of course, the lack of LaFell has not meant a lack of production. The Patriots offense has been the second-highest scoring unit in the NFL, and it has earned the third-highest average of net yards per pass attempt and more first downs than any other offense in the league. 

Brady's favorite receiver is an open receiver, and LaFell does a fantastic job of getting open. That's what made him such a favorite target for Brady on the famed play-action backside in-cut. 

As Bleacher Report-turned-ESPN analyst Matt Bowen highlighted at the time, this route allowed LaFell to take advantage of a soft spot in the defense when a linebacker or slot cornerback would come up to defend the run on a play-action pass. 

Time after time, this play helped the Patriots get a drive started on the right foot. 

But LaFell wasn't just helping the Patriots get their drives started; he was also helping them finish drives in the red zone. Last year, LaFell caught five touchdown passes in the red zone, the third-most for any Patriots pass-catcher behind Gronkowski and former Patriots tight end Tim Wright. With Wright out of the picture, LaFell is immediately the Patriots' second-best red-zone option. 

Considering that the Patriots are converting 73.9 percent of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns (second-best in the NFL), it's hard to imagine them getting much better in that area. 

For that matter, it's hard to imagine them getting much better in any area.

As soon as LaFell returns, though, you won't have to imagine it anymore. You'll get to see it for yourself. 

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