At first, Branch gave a stock response when asked about the ways that Tate could improve after the youngster tailed off statistically in 2010. About Tate's future, though? Well, Branch wasn't afraid to go out on a limb.
"A lot," Branch said of Tate's potential. "This kid, he has it, a fast kid. He's a sponge. He wants to learn. He studies pretty hard in the film room. He's a good kid."
Tate got off to an amazing start in 2010, his first full season since 2007 due to injuries as a senior at North Carolina and a rookie in New England. In his first four games last season, Tate averaged 33.4 yards over 18 kick returns, which led the league among players with at least 11 returns, and he also had two touchdowns. He was also third on the Patriots with 11 receptions at that point.
Yet, in the final 12 games of the regular season, Tate's kick return average dropped to 19.8 yards over 23 returns, which ranked 33rd among the 35 players who had at least 16 returns during that stretch. He also only had 13 catches in his last 12 games, which was a distant sixth on the team throughout that stretch.
"In training camp, [I will] work on my strengths and my weaknesses, go back to the film to see what I did right and wrong, and perfect both aspects," Tate said Sunday.
His role will change with the team's acquisition of Chad Ochocinco. Tate was a starting wide receiver in 2010, but he'll play in a reserve capacity behind Ochocinco, Branch and Wes Welker. Because his reps will be expected to diminish, it's obviously unreasonable to expect a statistical boom from a receiving perspective.
However, it could also help him in a way. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien could draw up plays that would be more specifically geared for the dynamic player who has the versatility to serve as a unique weapon. And it might also help Tate focus more on his kickoff returns — the area where he needs to be most valuable for the Patriots.
"I'm just going to try to get better overall," Tate said, "try to improve every day, my weaknesses and my strengths."
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