Wide receiver Brandon LaFell might like to take a mulligan on his first game of the season.
LaFell began practicing with the New England Patriots just a few days before the Patriots' 30-23 triumph over the New York Jets, and the Patriots gave him a sizable role in his first game back. The Patriots' primary X receiver was targeted eight times but came up with just two receptions, dropping five passes in the process.
There was some rust, understandably so after missing most of the offseason workout program and training camp with a foot injury. The Patriots would love for LaFell to be the player he was for them last year, when he caught 74 passes for 953 yards and seven touchdowns. He dropped just seven passes on the season, according to Pro Football Focus.
One game worth of drops is not an indication that LaFell is no longer the same player, but LaFell isn't going easy on himself.
"If I had to give myself a grade, it would be an 'F,'" he said. "I let the ball get out of my hands too many times. Tom [Brady] threw some good balls, I should have caught them. But overall we got the win. I just have to get back to it. We have a short week. Dust the cobwebs off and come back out here and play."
But even in dropping that many passes, LaFell can build off of Sunday's game. He was able to get open consistently against the Jets secondary, whether that was by design or a function of his own ability.
He became a prominent receiver in the Patriots offense, not because of any otherworldly level of athleticism, but his ability to do three simple things: get open, catch the ball and create yards after the catch. He dropped at least four passes where he had created separation from his defender.
Some of the throws were a little low.
Some were a little too high.
Some throws were behind him.
Some were too far out in front.
But not every pass—even from Brady—will be perfect. Those drops all share one common thread: an NFL receiver has to catch them, and LaFell gave himself a chance to do just that.
The Jets gave him a soft cushion off the line of scrimmage at times. LaFell ate up that soft cushion and got open; he just couldn't finish the play.
If LaFell's past is any indication, this game was an anomaly. According to Pro Football Focus, LaFell was a middle-of-the-pack receiver in terms of his sure-handedness last season. He dropped seven of 94 catchable balls, 7.45 percent, which ranked 45th out of 88 qualifying receivers in 2014.
LaFell deserves a break in his first game back. He's just not going to be the one to give himself a break.
"First game, last game—it doesn't matter," he said. "I expect more out of myself and my teammates expect more from me. I'm just really down on myself right now, but I'm happy for the other guys around me, stepping their level of play up and held on for us, and made plays when we needed it."
The Patriots don't need to find ways to get LaFell involved. They already know how to do it, and they proved that they could quickly integrate LaFell back into the offense by getting him eight targets on Sunday. That being said, if LaFell wants to continue to be a big part of the game plan, he has to make the most of his opportunities and catch the ball when it comes his way.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained by watching game tape. All quotes obtained first-hand.