By: Steve Balestrieri
Much talk the past days since the Super Bowl for the Patriots has centered around free agency and what the team will plan on doing to better the team in 2014. While much of the fandom and media want the Patriots to go after Larry Fitzgerald, the fact of the matter is the Patriots really have needs in other areas much more pressing and they won’t be looking to make a splash at wide receiver.
Larry Fitzgerald, while one of the premiere WRs in the NFL would most certainly help the offense but he isn’t what’s needed. The team has invested in the wide receiver position and the players will reap better dividends in their second season with the team. Where the team needs to add players is the tight end position and go back to a balanced two TE attack.
Team Invested In WRs in 2013:With the Patriots spending two draft picks (Dobson Rd 2, Boyce Rd4) and signing a couple of undrafted free agents at wide receiver, they won’t be doing the same thing again without giving those second year players a chance to make their second year jump in production.
Aaron Dobson had a pretty solid first year catching 37 passes for 519 yards for a 14.0 average and 4 touchdowns in 2013. After a slow first half of the season, Dobson got increasingly more comfortable in his role and his production increased. A foot injury slowed him down the stretch but he has the size and frame that will make him very productive in New England. How much? In this offense, he won’t be “The Guy”, but a frequent target and seeing nearly double his rookie production isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
Kenbrell Thompkins, like Dobson had his moments struggling in 2013 but also had an overall solid rookie season catching 32 passes for 466 yards and 4 TDs. He also had some injury problems, a hip issue that bothered him and a concussion which both caused him to miss some time. The UDFA turned heads in the spring and summer and a second year jump in production will likely follow as well.
Something to keep in mind about these two rookies is this, while fans want immediate production from their WRs, it takes time to develop them (a frequent complaint about NE) and Dobson had a more productive first season than former Patriot Deion Branch. Branch had 489 receiving yards as a rookie in 2002. Thompkins was right there as well.
Josh Boyce was a 4th rd draft choice out of TCU and perhaps has more upside than either of the previous two players. He played sparingly in 2013 but he is inline perhaps for the biggest increase in production. A smooth route runner with blistering speed, Boyce could find himself in the kick return game and if the team allows Julian Edelman to walk in free agency, he’s a guy who can step into that role.
Edelman’s contract is up this year and the team faces the decision on whether to keep him or let him walk. There is no easy answer with this dilemma however the team should make an effort to keep him in Foxboro but at a reasonable price.
Reports have Edelman making in the neighborhood of $6-7 million dollars per year this season during free agency. If that is the case, then the team’s best interest would be served by letting him walk. If he can be signed for half that amount, then Edelman should be brought back.
The Patriots invested heavily in Danny Amendola last spring and after tearing his groin away from the bone in the opener against Buffalo, it was an injury that caused him to both miss time and hampered him the rest of the season. Look for his numbers of 54 catches for 633 yards and 2 TDs to increase as well.
Danny Amendola will be looked to for more production in 2014. (USA TODAY Images)
Two other intriguing cases can be made for UDFAs Mark Harrison and T.J. Moe as well although neither took the field in 2013 due to injuries. Harrison is a big, physical, fast WR (6’3 230) who ran a 4.46 in the 40 before injuring his foot and missing the entire season. But he projects to be a big, red-zone target who has the speed to beat defensive backs outside the numbers.
Moe is a slot receiver who does the dirty work over the middle. He doesn’t have great speed but is very agile and has a 6’0 muscular frame to withstand the punishment. He had the fastest 3-cone time at the NFL Combine, a trait the Patriots have long coveted. While neither played a snap in 2013, both had the benefit of spending a year in the system and should know the offense quite well by spring mini-camps.
Tight Ends Other Than Gronk: Let’s face it, the spring and early summer for 2013 was a nightmare for the Patriots coaching staff. They made a conscious decision to let Wes Welker walk and base the offense on the two young tight ends whom they rewarded with long-term lucrative contract extensions.
But Rob Gronkowski needed back surgery on top of his numerous arm surgeries and then after only 7 games back was lost for the season tearing his ACL. Aaron Hernandez decided that being a football player with a $40 million contract was secondary to being a street gangster and is awaiting trial in jail for murder.
Early season production was non-existent and with Hernandez long gone and Gronkowski unlikely to be ready for football in September, this is the area where the Patriots offense needs to improve greatly.
They really need two tight ends, one in the Gronk mold, a big, physical blocking tight end who can catch the ball and another like Hernandez who is more a receiver than a true tight end. This is where the focus should be in free agency when looking outside the team’s own players.
There are plenty of good options in the tight end market, that won’t necessarily break the bank. One option that makes a lot of sense is Buffalo’s Scott Chandler. Chandler had 53 catches for 655 yards and 2 TDs last season. He’s very big, 6’7 and would offer a big red zone target for Tom Brady. While not possessing the speed of Gronkowski and the deep play ability, he’d still open things up in the middle and is a good but not great blocker.
The other tight end can be had in the 2014 NFL Draft. Depending upon how free agency goes and the way board breaks down the Patriots should be able to draft a good tight end in either the first round or during Day 2.
It is possible to even see Harrison in that Hernandez “flex” tight end role with the team. Hernandez was really a TE in name only and was much more of a receiver. With Harrison’s speed and size, he’d be big addition to that role as well. It will all depend on how the Patriots decide to utilize him.
Going back to a two-tight end approach however, is the best way for the offense to go. They are much harder to stop that way and having a good core of wide receivers and tight ends added into the Patriots running game will make the offense a very difficult one to game plan for.
Having a player of Fitzgerald’s caliber here is a double-edged sword. On one hand there is no denying his ability to produce, but then you must keep feeding him the ball to justify his immense salary. And that salary takes away from other areas that will help the team better. This team is better off without him.
Kerry Byrne from Cold Hard Football Facts published a great piece a few years ago on the “shiny hood ornament” as he calls WRs and has some compelling facts to back up his theory to state a championship offense doesn’t need to have a world class WR as its focal point.