Tom Brady has a bevy of quality receivers at his disposal for this upcoming season. We all know Tom Brady is not only the best quarterback in the NFL, or even just the best quarterback in NFL history, but in fact the greatest being to ever grace this Earth with his presence. He will get everyone their looks, each receiver will have their day. But how can we expect those receptions to be split up?
Julian Edelman is the old standby at wide receiver. He is Tom Brady’s most trusted target. The two of them know what each other is thinking and Brady can rely on Edelman being where he is supposed to be. Edelman is 31 now and has been banged up in recent years, but he will still get fed. In his four years as a starter he has averaged 104 receptions per 16 games played. Problem is, he doesn’t usually play in all 16. With Cooks in the fold there is a chance we see a slight decline in targets this year, but I don’t think it will be much. If Edelman can stay on the field I would expect to see 90+ receptions from him again this year. About 6 receptions per game seems about right for him.
Brandin Cooks is the hardest to predict since he is the newcomer. Yes, he is coming to New England with Tom Brady, but he was already in a great offense in New Orleans. Also, with New Orleans he had less competition for targets. The Patriots are loaded with pass catchers, the Saints were mostly Cooks and Michael Thomas. Cooks averaged 81 catches the last two years for 1156 yards and 8 touchdowns. I know a lot of people are expecting huge things from Cooks, but I think that sounds about right for him again this year. He can help spread the field and open up more lanes underneath, he can also catch some of those short screen passes at the line and try to make something of them. But with 4 good wide receivers, a few pass catching backs and Rob Gronkowski I don’t see Cooks suddenly increasing his catch total. If anything goes up I think it will be his touchdown total.
Malcolm Mitchell is a good receiver, capable of starting on most teams. On the Patriots he is behind a wealth of others on the pecking order. He will keep a role in the offense however, provided he can stay healthy. Mitchell caught 32 passes and 4 touchdowns in his rookie season last year. He really came on late in the year though, catching 21 passes between weeks 9 and 12 while scoring all 4 of his touchdowns. He even caught 6 passes in the Super Bowl during the Pats late comeback. There will be some weeks where we don’t see much of Mitchell and others where he is thrown to quite a bit. I think the Patriots “3rd” wide receiver will be matchup based, Mitchell and Hogan both having their days in the sun. I’m thinking 40-45 receptions for Mitchell this year if he can stay on the field. He has had knee problems dating back to college. The larger likelihood is Mitchell winds up missing a few games and finishes closer to 35 receptions.
Chris Hogan is the forgotten man. After bringing Cooks into the fold people have seemingly forgotten about Chris Hogan. He had 38 catches last year for 680 yards, leading the league at 17.9 yards per catch. He then came up huge in the postseason with 17 catches in 3 games and 19.5 yards per catch. His play will be a bit sporadic, matchup based. Teams that are susceptible to the long ball Hogan will be given a lot of run. Teams beat more by good route running and shorter to medium range passes I think Mitchell will see the field more. Counting the playoffs Hogan had two 100 yard games and three 90 yard games last year. I expect his stats to be hit and miss again this year. 35 catches with 600 yards seems to be doable.
Danny Amendola is still around after taking a third pay cut to stay in New England. I don’t see him doing a whole lot though unless injuries ahead of him free up targets. If everyone stays healthy Amendola may fall short of 30 catches for the third time in five seasons.
Rob Gronkowski hasn’t played in all 16 games since 2011 (though he did play 15 two years ago). I see no reason why the Patriots wouldn’t scale back his snaps with all these other offensive weapons they have. There is no reason to risk injury by sending Gronk onto the field for 60, 70 snaps a game. They have another tight end who is also a good blocker, and they have plenty of good to great pass catchers. Gronkowski’s snaps should be limited in an effort to keep him healthy and playing through January. Due to this, I don’t see Gronk catching 70, 80 balls like he has in the past. If he can stay on the field for all 16 games maybe 65 catches, but that’s a big if given his history. The touchdowns should still be there regardless. When healthy Gronkowski is an unstoppable force, impossible to cover and dragging defenders down the field like a man playing amongst boys. In a full season double digit touchdowns is still likely, but I’d hope and expect his snap count is brought down this year.
Dwayne Allen was brought in to fill the Martellus Bennett role. He is a younger, cheaper version of Bennett. Biggest problem with him is he has missed games in each of the past 4 seasons. Hopefully he can stay on the field and take some pressure and snaps off of Gronkowski. Allen is a good blocker, but also has capable hands. He scored 8 touchdowns in 2014 and 6 last season. I see him still catching some touchdowns down near the goal line. Opposing defenses will focus on Gronkowski, or maybe on the run game, freeing up a lane for Allen to slip free unnoticed. For catches I see him in the 35 range, but coming with about 6 touchdowns. That’s if Gronk can stay healthy. If Gronk goes down we could see Allen creep up closer to Bennett’s 55 receptions from a year ago.
James White is the main pass catching back. Honestly, that’s why he is here. He doesn’t make many guys miss and isn’t a huge threat as a runner. White is out there on the field to catch passes, create mismatches lined up against linebackers who can’t cover him. In fact, although he is a running back White has caught 35 more passes in his career than he has carries! He caught 60 balls a year ago and then added 18 more in the playoffs. He will still be the Patriots top receiving back, but they now have 4 capable runners who all have decent hands as well. They don’t have anyone like Legarrette Blount this year who has to be taken out on passing downs. All of them can catch the ball and make things happen. I see White’s receptions dropping some this year, maybe into the 45- 50 range.
Mike Gillislee has been assumed to be the main runner all offseason, and I think that will still be the case. However, the Patriots have always loved to play the matchups and I think each of their running backs will have their Sunday in the sun. Each will have a big game, but overall Gillislee probably leads the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. He is also a capable pass catcher, so unlike with Blount last year it won’t be obvious the Patriots are running when their main back is in the game. I think he stays in the game and becomes a dump off option on passing plays, picking up 25-30 receptions.
Rex Burkhead is making some late noise in the competition for reps at running back. Burkhead was given a chance to start in week 17 last year with the Bengals and ran for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns. He is in the same kind of mold as a Danny Woodhead, if he carves out a starting role over Mike Gillislee he could catch 40+ balls this season. As it stands now I expect Gillislee to get the most work, but I think Burkhead will have a couple big games. I have him pegged for 25 receptions, with the ability to corral a lot more with playing time.
Dion Lewis is the shiftiest of the Patriots running backs. He can make guys look downright silly out on the field when the ball is in his hands. Lewis gets banged up though and misses a lot of time, so it’s hard to envision him having a huge role. In 2014, Lewis caught 36 passes in only 7 games as the Patriots featured him a lot more that year. Given his injury history he won’t be as heavily used. However, he did manage to catch 17 passes last year in his 7 games after returning from injury. This leads me to believe Lewis will still have some sort of role. Even with the crowded backfield he could catch 2-3 balls per game.