Published on July 7th, 2013 | by Owen Knight0
Brady and the Patriots’ Offense in for a Down Year?
The New England Patriots have had more than their fair share of drama this offseason. From the departure of Wes Welker to the multiple surgeries for Rob Gronkowski to the Hernandez debacle, Patriots fans have had a rough few months. Amidst all of these headlines one must raise the question: how will the Patriots’ offense respond to these changes?
While the casual observer may fear for the Patriots, I’m sure that their fan base hasn’t lost much sleep. With Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at the helm, the Patriots have yet to post a losing season. Dating back to 2001, the Patriots have gone a combined 146-46, with 5 Super Bowl appearances and 3 rings. Their offense has always been a strength, and the 2012 season was no different.
The Patriots finished first in overall offense in 2012, averaging a whopping 426.9 yards per game. The passing offense finished 4th in the NFL, with their rushing in 8th. This new-found rushing prowess was a welcome relief for Patriots fans, as they hadn’t had a running back worth writing home about since Corey Dillon. Stevan Ridley led the charge with 1,263 yards, with Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen chipping in as well. This improvement in the running game only aided their passing game more, as defenses finally had a feature back to worry about.
Tom Brady once again stole the show, passing for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns, with just 8 interceptions (a bit high for him, but great by human standards). Wes Welker was his go-to guy for the umpteenth season, catching 118 balls, while Brandon Lloyd caught 74 passes as the number 2 receiver. The Boston TE Party (Gronkowski and Hernandez) regressed a bit after their supernatural 2011, but still posted a great year with 106 catches, 1273 yards, and 16 touchdowns between them.
Now, these old statistics are great, but the future only raises questions. Welker has gone to Denver, Woodhead’s a Charger, Lloyd is a free agent, Gronk is still recovering from surgery, and Hernandez is probably going to be in prison for the rest of his life. All of a sudden the Patriots phenomenal offense looks a bit different.
As we’ve established, the passing game has always been the Patriots’ strength. The Patriots completed 402 passes in 2012. However, 301 of these passes were caught by players that won’t be wearing a Patriot uniform next season. Welker caught 118, 74 for Lloyd, 51 for Hernandez, 40 for Woodhead, 16 for Deion Branch, and one each for Kellen Winslow and Donte’ Stallworth. 74.8% of their receptions are now gone, so who will pick up the slack?
Health worries aside, conventional wisdom will point to Rob Gronkowski picking up most of Hernandez’s production. However, when you take a look at what Hernandez brought to the table, you’ll quickly see that he and Gronk are completely different players. According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez lined up out wide on 59% of his snaps last season. We even saw him take snaps at running back too. Gronk is more of a traditional, in-line tight end, not one of these fancy new “Jokers” we’re seeing around the league. Someone a little shiftier than Gronk will have to fill Hernandez’s role.
The problem is, the Patriots do not have another tight end like Hernandez. Jake Ballard is coming off of knee surgery, and he was far from nimble before the injury. Michael Hoomanawanui was technically Hernandez’s direct backup, but he isn’t half the athlete that Hernandez is (4.77 forty and 7.77 3-cone compared to a 4.64 and 6.83). Undrafted free agent Zach Sudfield has turned a few heads over the offseason, and is an intriguing athlete at 6’7″, 255. He’ll be one to watch in the coming years, but it’s doubtful that he’ll make a significant impact as a rookie.
In all likelihood, the backs and receivers will end up absorbing Hernandez’s role, while also filing the void left by the departing Welker, Lloyd and Woodhead.
The Patriots drafted two wide receivers this April- Aaron Dobson in the second round, and Josh Boyce in the fourth. Dobson will likely slide in as the no. 2 receiver, while Boyce fights for the number 3 or 4 job. New England also brought in Danny Amendola from the Rams this offseason. While many fans equate Amendola to Welker based solely on skin color, the two players have some differences in their game. Amendola is faster, while Welker is better after the catch. Both are excellent route runners, but Amendola’s speed will allow him to play on the outside more than Welker did. Amendola comes to town with some baggage, as he has struggled with injuries throughout his career. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be in for a big year.
Other players to look out for in 2013 include Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen. Edelman is a former college quarterback, who has stuck around in New England mostly for his special teams play. Although he has struggled with injuries, “Welker’s Mini-Me” is an adept punt returner, and even played some defense in 2011. This year, he has a great opportunity to play in the slot, where his shiftiness could be put to good use.
Vereen only caught 8 passes in 2012, but he is slated to replace Danny Woodhead as the third down and no-huddle back. His explosiveness is a great complement to Stevan Ridley, who does even less in the passing game. He should be looking at significant snaps this year, and look for him to catch 30+ balls.
Overall, I think that this unit has the potential to be a top-5 offense once again. I predict that the passing game will regress, but not by much. Look for the running game to stay strong, and for some of these unheralded players to step up. While many of these players have question marks associated with them, the overall unit is still very talented.