CHANDLER, Ariz. – Brandon LaFell had a solid but unspectacular rookie season for the Carolina Panthers in 2010.
His stats as the Panthers’ No. 3 receiver were relatively similar to those of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins as rookies for the New England Patriots last season. LaFell had 38 catches on 71 targets for 468 yards with one touchdown, but he also dropped seven passes.
The promise he showed wasn’t enough to convince veteran All-Pro Steve Smith that he was good enough to consistently play across from him. Long before LaFell was a member of the Patriots and working toward a Super Bowl XLIX championship, one conversation with Smith changed LaFell’s career.
“After my first season, me and Smitty were having a conversation, and he was like ‘We’re gonna go get a No. 2 receiver. We might go get a No. 2 receiver,’” LaFell recalled Wednesday at the Patriots’ team hotel. “And that lit a fire underneath me, like ‘Smitty doesn’t think I’m a No. 2? I’m about to go work my butt off.’ I kinda think in the back of my head, he said it to light that fire in me.”
Smith wasn’t laughing when he said it, and he wasn’t messing with LaFell. He was serious.
LaFell went into an extra gear going into his second season, and by the end of the year, it had paid off.
“He said it, and then from then on man, you can ask him that, the following OTAs, I came in, I wasn’t taking any reps off,” LaFell said. “I was trying to take every rep I can. Me and David Gettis were battling during OTAs and camp, but I was like, man I’m gonna do everything in my power to be the other guy beside Smitty and prove to him that I can be the No. 2 receiver.”
Veteran Legedu Naanee beat out LaFell for the starting role out of training camp, but LaFell stole his job by the end of the season and never again relinquished it.
Though they’re still close, LaFell said that he never talked to his former teammate about that conversation, but he believes that Smith, now a member of the Baltimore Ravens, knew it was going to motivate him.
LaFell has taken another jump now with the New England Patriots, setting career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns with a 74-953-7 line. LaFell worked through toe and shoulder injuries late in the season, which drew high praise from quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick for his toughness.
Playing through injuries isn’t exactly a choice on the Patriots.
“Brady, Vince, Revis, Devin McCourty, guys you see that’s nicked up all year but they’re not complaining,” LaFell said. “They’re out there playing through injuries, and they practice at a high level every day. You look at those guys, and you’re like, they’re not complaining. They’re nicked up just as bad as you. These guys are older than you, then they go out and practice and compete at a high levels, so they make you do the same thing. Just being around great guys makes you elevate your game.”
The LaFell signing was met with some head-scratching during the offseason. Didn’t the Patriots already have two similar players with more upside in Thompkins (cut midway through the season) and Dobson (placed on injured reserve after catching three passes)? Didn’t LaFell have issues dropping the ball in Carolina (he had eight in 2013)?
The veteran wideout said some added opportunities allowed him to flourish as the Patriots’ No. 2 behind Julian Edelman.
“They give you the opportunity to succeed up here,” LaFell said. “Not saying other teams don’t, but I’m just saying they gave me the opportunity to succeed. They gave me the opportunity to catch more balls and play a different position on offense, put me on special teams earlier this year. They just gave me a better opportunity.”
LaFell didn’t catch a single pass in his first two weeks with the Patriots, but once he had the playbook down, he was off to the races. LaFell proved he can be a No. 2 receiver on a Super Bowl team, and he dropped just five balls this season. Most importantly, unlike Naanee, he didn’t let some up-and-comer steal his job.
Thumbnail photo via Julio Cortez/Associated Press