New England

Can 3 Rookie Receivers Save the Patriots Offense?

Fearsome doesn’t exactly describe the stable of weapons at Tom Brady’s disposal at the moment.

It’s not a bad group; no roster with Julian Edelman or James White on it could ever fall too far below the line of respectability.

Rather, it’s an indictment on who’s not available for the New England Patriots as they look to improve to 7-0 in 2019 on Monday Night Football versus the Jets:

  • Antonio Brown? He’s a free agent, but apparently not free.
  • Josh Gordon? Injured.
  • Demaryius Thomas? Lining up for the Jets, actually, looking frisky with eight catches for 109 yards over his last two games for Gang Green.
  • Rob Gronkowski? Still retired.

New England heads into Monday with Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski as its healthy wide receivers; Ben Watson, Ryan Izzo and Eric Tomlinson as healthy tight ends; and White, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden and Damien Harris potentially available at running back.

The Patriots made do without Dorsett, Gordon, Watson or Tomlinson against the Giants last week, pulling away in the fourth quarter to win, 35-14. At wide receiver specifically, Brady had only three healthy options once Gordon left in the first quarter with an injury: Edelman, and undrafted rookies Meyers and Olszewski.

All Brady offered after Thursday night’s game was a “we’ll see” when asked if he felt the team’s offense was good enough.

“They’re working hard at it, and I appreciate all their efforts,” Brady said of Meyers and Olszewski. “When you’re a young player – I mean, I always said when I was young, I just was trying to be on time and not forget my playbook anywhere. These guys are kind of in a different role than that. They’re playing in games and contributing.

“So, again, I’m happy for those guys to come in there and help us win a game. That’s what we needed. Anyone who’s on the active roster has to be ready to go. So, it was just good for those guys to catch some balls and gain some confidence.”

The usage of Meyers and Olszewski vs. the G-Men was far and away the largest it has been in their brief NFL careers. Meyers played a career-high 57 snaps, or 70% of New England’s offensive plays, while Olszewski lined up on offense 50 times, or 61% of the action – not to mention 12 more snaps on special teams.

“It’s made me hungry for more,” Meyers said. “I got a little taste of it today. Hopefully I can keep going and getting more on my plate.”

Meyers finished with four catches for 54 yards, Olszewski the first two catches of his career for 34 yards.

“There’s elements of the offense that you tweak and you change based on who’s out there because you always want to try to play to the strengths of the players,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.

With wide receiver N’Keal Harry eligible to return from injured reserve prior to the Patriots’ Week 9 contest against the Ravens, Olszewski will almost certainly be relegated to punt returns. Either way, Brady had better get used to having rookies in the huddle. Although this is hardly the first time Brady has been burdened with such a crop of youngsters, and it’s been far more profound in year’s past.

Through six games, a rookie has caught 6.6% of Brady’s throws. Since he became New England’s fulltime starting quarterback in 2001, there’ve been six seasons in which a greater rate of Brady’s completions have gone to a first-year player: 2002 (17.7), 2006 (11), 2009 (8.2), 2010 (26.3), 2013 (20.5) and 2016 (11.6).

Only one of those teams went on to win it all, when the Patriots erased a 28-3 deficit in Super Bowl LI to capture the franchise’s fifth title. In three of those other seasons, however, the added workload with rookies paid dividends later on.

In 2002 – when Brady himself was just 25 – the Patriots went 9-7 while Brady led the league in touchdown passes (28) and worked in Deion Branch, David Givens and Daniel Graham to New England’s offensive scheme. Branch and Givens in particular played pivotal roles in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX titles.

In 2009, the last time New England played on wild-card weekend, a former college quarterback named Julian Edelman developed a rapport with Brady in his first year back from a torn ACL. The very next season, the team unleashed rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the world. Nine years and three more championships later, Gronkowski retired as perhaps the greatest ever at his position and Edelman is building a borderline résumé for Canton in his own right.

The other side of the coin is what’s happened when the team becomes too reliant on rookies and once they don’t pan out, marginal veterans in their stead. The 2006 Patriots came up short in the AFC Championship Game due in large part to Reche Caldwell’s drop, but what if rookie second-round pick Chad Jackson had progressed as expected?

The 2013 team was no different, when a lack of weaponry caught up to New England in Denver in the AFC title game. An injury to Gronkowski was the real kicker, but what if Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins did their jobs?

Or, what if it’s on Brady to go the extra mile to get young receivers acclimated?

“The quarterback and the receivers need to work on their timing, execution and recognition,” Bill Belichick said. “I mean, they need to see the same thing from two different vantage points and that’s really what it comes down to is the quarterback needs to be able to see what a receiver sees, and the receiver needs to see what the quarterback sees and be able to make the right decisions on different routes, against different leverage and coverage.”

It’s not always as cut and dry as blaming the rookies, but it has always gone one of two ways: the rookies have eventually blossomed into foundational pieces in New England, or they’ve been kicked to the curb in favor of established veterans the very next season.

Brady, 42 and a free agent at season’s end, may not be around long enough to see it through with Meyers, Harry and Olszewski the way he did with players of another generation. Barring a trade between now and the Oct. 29 deadline, however, he may not have much of a choice but to hold up his part of the bargain and get in tune with what he’s got in pursuit of another title.

Contact Us