When a rookie wide receiver shows success in New England, he sticks around for a long time. By that logic, the Patriots are hoping a couple of their rookie wideouts will be in New England for a while.
Of course, there’s a very small sample size behind this observation. Only Deion Branch and Julian Edelman have caught more than 20 passes among Patriots rookie wide receivers in the Bill Belichick era. Bethel Johnson couldn’t do it, Taylor Price couldn’t do it, Chad Jackson couldn’t do it and Brandon Tate couldn’t track in a single reception.
Aaron Hernandez (45 catches), Rob Gronkowski (42 catches) and Laurence Maroney (22 catches) all accomplished the feat, but, of course, none of those players are wide receivers.
If Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompson, Mark Harrison, Perez Ashford or Quentin Sims can’t accomplish the very attainable feat, then it’s unclear who will be catching passes from Tom Brady this season. Between Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Hernandez, Danny Woodhead, Branch, Donte Stallworth and Kellen Winslow, the Patriots have to make up 301 catches and 476 targets from last season.
Danny Amendola should be able to eat up a chunk of that production. His best season came in 2010 when he was able to play all 16 games — he caught 85 passes for 123 targets. He played 11 games last season, but if you project his 63 receptions and 101 targets out to 16 games, you come up with 91 catches and 146 targets. If you give him a bump since Brady is now throwing to him in Welker’s old role, he could come up with 100 catches on 160 or so targets.
That’s still 201 catches and 316 targets to go. Edelman should be able to take on Branch’s production, if the fifth-year player can stay healthy, and Shane Vereen should be able to eat up most of Woodhead’s 40 catches on 55 targets, while keeping his eight catches on 13 targets. That means that 145 catches and 232 targets will need to be spread out between the aforementioned rookie wideouts, the veteran wide receivers that make the team (out of Kamar Aiken, Lavelle Hawkins and Michael Jenkins), a fourth running back and the tight ends who make the roster who weren’t on the squad last year (out of Jake Ballard, Brandon Ford and Zach Sudfeld). Since only five players will likely make the team out of that group, that’s 29 catches and 46 targets per player.
That’s a lot of production to ask out of a bunch of unknowns. But the Patriots know this and are planning accordingly. The team got little out of Dobson, Boyce or Harrison during OTAs and minicamp due to injury, so their reps will need to increase during training camp. That’s why the team released Donald Jones on Friday. If the hope is for at least one of those players to at least partially cut into the production lost from Lloyd and Hernandez, they’ll need to get on the same page as Brady and have the playbook down pat in the six weeks of training camp and preseason.
All eyes will be on Dobson and Boyce. Fans will be anxiously watching the second- and fourth-rounders, and the media will be analyzing their every movement and word. That’s a lot of pressure on two rookies in a system that hasn’t produced very impressive results from first-year receivers in the past. But the Jones release shows that the Patriots trust what they’ve seen so far, even if it’s in limited time and reps.
Part of the reason why Price, Johnson and Tate were able to get by their rookie seasons without much production is that Brady had other players to throw to. That’s not the case this year, and it’s obvious that something needs to change. A rookie wideout will likely have to be thrown to the wolves, and if it’s not in the “X” receiver role in Week 1, it will come at some point.
Giving Price, Jackson, Johnson and Tate essentially redshirt seasons to learn the offense didn’t work. All four players were gone within three years. If Dobson and Boyce are going to last, they may need to be treated like Branch and Edelman. If a player is going to work out, he’s going to show it in Year 1.