By: Steve Balestrieri
Back in May, Tom Brady was asked how the revamped wide receiver position would play out and he said that it would take until about mid-training camp until he would know who he was most comfortable throwing to.
With the first few weeks of camp in the books and the team conducting joint practices with the Buccaneers this week prior to their pre-season game on Friday night, the starting wide receivers on the roster are starting to fall into place.
It was during an interview with WEEI Brady was asked by Gerry Callahan when that comfort level with the new receivers should start taking place, Brady didn’t shy away, “It’s a process”, he said. Adding, “by mid-training camp we should know who I am most comfortable throwing to.”
Brady also mentioned that certain WRs, Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Randy Moss were quick to pick up the offense very quickly and due to their football IQ it was easier for them. During the NFL Draft, Bill Belichick made statements that the two rookie WRs, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce had very high football IQs. Whether that is the case or not, the rookies are picking up the offense very quickly.
With that milestone of mid-camp now here, it is quickly becoming apparent that the receivers that we’re seeing with the first team offense day after day is going to be the one we see against Buffalo in a few weeks’ time.
And the Patriots starting wide receivers look to be Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson. Josh Boyce and Julian Edelman are the top backups and rookie TE Zach Sudfeld is emerging as the top option in the passing game at his position until Rob Gronkowski is able to return.
With either injuries or perhaps a drop in play, receivers Michael Jenkins, Quentin Sims, Kamar Aiken, Jonathan Haggerty are sliding down the chart. They’re not getting any first team reps now and they’re roster spots are now vulnerable.
Not surprisingly Danny Amendola is Brady’s go-to guy and with good reason, he always seems to be open and has established himself as a reliable, sure-handed option.
But Brady’s other options; the young wide receivers have stepped up and are rapidly gaining the all-important trust factor with the quarterback. Kenbrell Thompkins followed up a strong spring with an even better summer and now sits just below Amendola as a receiving option. Thompkins has good size, (6’1, 195) speed and runs precise routes. His size allows him to compete for balls that the Patriots haven’t had in some time.
A good point of this was during Tuesday’s joint practice with the Bucs; Thompkins went deep and was covered like a blanket by Rashaan Melvin. Brady threw the deep ball up giving Thompkins a chance to make a play. And he did…reaching behind Melvin to pull the ball down with one hand.
Rookie draft pick Aaron Dobson is gaining confidence as the outside option or the “X” wide receiver and is proving daily that he can go up and make the tough catches as well as stretch the field vertically. Dobson is a big (6’3, 200) target, who also has speed, can make plays and get to the ball.
On the very first play of 11-11 drills, Brady went deep to Dobson who got by his defender and was able to make a nice play hauling in the pass.
Fellow rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce is also getting a lot of reps with the first team offense and some of the Pats beat writers are now saying he’s supplanted Edelman as the number 4 option at wide receiver.
Boyce has tremendous speed, runs precise routes and has had a knack for getting open. Boyce can play inside or out and has special teams value as well in the kick return game.
Julian Edelman entered camp as the player with the most experience catching passes from Brady. While he remains a dangerous punt returner on special teams, his options in the passing game remain as a backup.
However, he does already have the built in trust factor with Brady and that can never be overlooked, and already having been a factor in the Patriots passing game at times during his career, he can assume a larger role whenever needed.
The Patriots options at tight end were seemingly limitless a year ago, now with one option in jail and the other (Gronkowski) hurt and recovering from back surgery, the team was starting from scratch, at least in the receiving department.
Veteran Jake Ballard and UDFA Zach Sudfeld were seen as the top two choices for Brady in the passing game. It’s been Sudfeld who has shined both in spring and so far during training camp at catching the ball.
Sudfeld is another big target who stands at 6’7 and 260 lbs. While not quite having the speed that Gronkowski has at breaking down the seam, Sudfeld has enough athleticism to challenge safeties and has made too many plays day in and day out to discount.
He has a knack for making the big catch and has excellent hands. When Gronkowski does indeed return, Sudfeld could be a prime candidate to slide over into that second TE or “Joker” role that Hernandez played.
So barring any injuries, for the remainder of the pre-season the Patriots receivers will consist of Amendola, Dobson and Thompkins with Boyce and Edelman as top backups. The top receiving tight end is Sudfeld until Gronkowski is ready to return.
It is an emerging group and one that the Patriots and more importantly Brady can live with. And it is right on schedule….