Weak On Receivers, Patriots Shouldn’t Be Dismissed

Despite an apparent drop-off at the receiver position, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's Patriots will be dangerous again.

Despite an apparent drop-off at the receiver position, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s Patriots will be dangerous again.

Despite a tumultuous offseason, the New England Patriots have been sitting pretty near the top of odds makers’ futures lists since the conclusion of Super XLVII. Not quite at the top, but just below the bookies’ true favorites, the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos.

Today, New England is considered 10/1 to win Super Bowl XLVIII – which also puts them behind the Seattle Seahawks – despite what has been a massive upheaval to its roster this past offseason. It appears that the age-old combination of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick continues to be enough to warrant short odds and heaps of expectation, regardless of any extenuating circumstances.

The ever-popular Patriots managed to raise a few eyebrows this past week though, falling 40-9 to a Calvin Johnson-less Detroit Lions side in a preseason matchup. While preseason games mean absolutely squat in the NFL, the lopsidedness of the defeat and the lack of offensive has forced some to question whether the Patriots have enough in the tank to see this season through.

On paper, the Patriots certainly don’t have enough offense but in reality things will prove very different.

When the Patriots take to the field against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1, the team will be missing more than 3,000 yards of receiving talent. Seven of the 14 players that caught a pass last season are no longer with the team.

NE_receiversThe biggest loss is, of course, Wes Welker, who has led the team in receiving yards for the past five years. Welker’s defection to the Mile High City means the Patriots are without a player who has averaged 1,243 yards and 112 receptions per season over the last six years. That’s a big gap to fill.

The New England front office’s decision to cut Brandon Lloyd one year into a three-year deal could also prove costly. Lloyd was the second leading receiver on the team last year, catching 74 balls for 911 yards.

There was nothing the Patriots could do about Aaron Hernandez, who was fourth in receiving yards last season. The tight end’s run in with the law (to put it lightly) was a blow to a team that had expected, and paid for, big things from the 23-year-old.

The Patriots will also be without RB Danny Woodhead, who chose to sign with the San Diego Chargers this spring. Woodhead has been a solid backup in the backfield, but also accounted for 446 yards through the air last season.

Also absent from the team are Deion Branch, who had 145 yards receiving last season, as well as Donte Stallworth and Kellen Winslow Jr., both of whom caught one ball last season.

In total, these seven players were responsible for 3,414 receiving yards last season. To put it another way, that’s 70 percent of the Patriot’s total passing (4,844 yards).

Rob Gronkowski's absence could be huge.

Rob Gronkowski’s absence could be huge.

Of the remaining seven players to have caught a ball last season, those that remain with the team, three are running backs (Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden); three are tight ends (Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells); leaving Julian Edelman as the sole surviving wide receiver. To make things worse, Gronkowski remains on the physically unable to perform list after undergoing multiple forearm surgeries as well as back surgery during the offseason. An ETA for his return remains conspicuous by its absence.

The Patriots signed former St. Louis Rams receiver Danny Amendola via free agency. Amendola has never been a prolific receiver, but his quiet demeanor and can-do attitude make him ideal for Belichick’s system.

In addition to Amendola and Edelman, the rest of New England’s receiving unit is made up of rookies and practice squad players. The team drafted Aaron Dobson (Marshall) in the second round and Josh Boyce (TCU) in the fourth, as well as picking up undrafted receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (Cincinnati). Kamar Aiken, Johnathan Haggerty and Matthew Slater have all done time on various  practice squads.

Nobody would blame you if you were of the opinion that the cupboard is (practically) empty in New England. Just looking at the names above (both departing and arriving) is enough to wince. But the New England Patriots are not offensively dead in the water. In fact, the Patriots may be one of the most dangerous teams in the league. While this may seem incredulous, consider the following.

In 2006, which was coincidentally the last time Wes Welker’s name wasn’t on the roster, the New England receiving unit was, well, not exactly exemplary, shall we say. The team was led in receiving by WR Reche Caldwell (760 yards), TE Ben Watson (643 yards), WR Troy Brown (384 yards) – in his final season – and RB Kevin Faulk (356 yards).

Replacing Wes Welker will take a team effort.

Replacing Wes Welker will take a team effort.

Other players with catches that season included Doug Gabriel, Daniel Graham, Laurence Moroney, David Thomas, Chad Jackson, Corey Dillon and Jabbar Gaffney. Now, outside of those with a season ticket at Foxboro, how many of these players do you remember? And they were the players with more than 100 yards receiving.

In total, 15 players caught at least one ball in 2006, 11 of whom had 100-plus yards. 11 also scored a touchdown. In total, the Patriots threw for 3,590 yards that season, with 3,529 coming from Brady’s arm. Without a single standout receiver, the Patriots finished the regular season with a 12-4 record and advanced to the AFC Championship Game, where Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts put the halters on their season.

If there’s one thing that 2006 proved, it’s that a team effort is that much more important than individual numbers. In 2013, the Patriots are going to need to prove that once more.

Back in 2006, the Patriots garnered 1,969 yards and 20 yards on the ground, without a 1,000-yard rusher. Once again, it was team spirit that carried the team forward.

With the addition of LeGarrette Blount to the backfield alongside Stevan Ridley, who had 1,263 rushing yards last season, the Patriots could be about to have another strong team performance on the ground this year. Yes, Blount has had a quiet couple of years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a big 2010, but Belichick and Co. aren’t looking for 1,500 yards here.

So, while the Patriots may look lacking on paper, history tells us that as long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are at the reins, this is a team that can succeed against the odds, or in this case, alongside the odds.

All statistics used in this article have been sourced from Pro-Football-Reference.com.

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