Reche Caldwell’s drop in the fourth quarter of the 2006 AFC Championship Game isn’t the only reason why the Patriots lost vs. the Indianapolis Colts, nor was Julian Edelman’s 10-catch, 140-yard MVP performance in Super Bowl LIII the sole reason New England won vs. the Los Angeles Rams.
Each player was thrust into the role of No. 1 receiver on the depth chart for the Patriots based on personnel around them. Edelman was equipped to handle the responsibility, while Caldwell wasn’t.
Despite their differing career arcs, it’s something Caldwell and Edelman have in common: each player was the go-to guy for Tom Brady during a season in which overall talent in the passing game for New England was appalling. The fatal flaw reared its head at the worst possible time for the Patriots in 2006, but it never derailed the 2018 team because Edelman was...actually good.
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Edelman’s emergence from a college quarterback to a fringe Hall of Fame candidate needs no refresher. He’s caught two of the most important passes in Patriots history: the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX vs. the Seattle Seahawks and a circus catch which extended the game-tying drive in Super Bowl LI vs. the Atlanta Falcons.
He’s everything you’d ever want in a wide receiver, save for the fact he turns 33 years old next month.
Only two wide receivers across the NFL under contract for the 2019 season are older than Edelman, who entered the league in 2009: Larry Fitzgerald and Ted Ginn Jr. Few players in NFL history have had the kind of season Edelman will need to have next year (call it 90 catches, 1,000 yards) at age 33 or older to keep this ship afloat.
Don’t twist this as Edelman being on the verge of a decline. On the precipice of a “cliff,” so many pundits have spoken of re: Brady. Nothing Edelman did last year suggests he’s on the verge of fading away.
Forcing him to be the No. 1 wide receiver without any help is just asking for it though. For the second off-season in a row, the Patriots have completely neglected the receiving corps in free agency, and that’s before you get into the retirement Rob Gronkowski and the Grand Canyon of an abyss that’s left on the tight end depth chart.
Aside from Edelman, only three of the 12 wide receivers and tight ends on New England’s roster have caught a pass from Tom Brady: Phillip Dorsett, Matthew Slater, and Jacob Hollister.
And that number is inflated, really. Slater’s one career catch was in 2011. Hollister has caught eight passes in two seasons.
Dorsett, for as reliable as he’s looked in stretches with the Patriots, failed to get so much as a target from Brady in 26 snaps in the Super Bowl.
He did have the same number of catches in the game (zero) as Chris Hogan, who remains unsigned – an indictment unto itself. Cordarrelle Patterson isn’t exactly Jerry Rice but he, too, is another familiar name that won’t be back after signing with the Chicago Bears.
Tires were kicked on just about every free agent receiver available, from Adam Humphries to Golden Tate to Cole Beasley. The Patriots came away with zip, zilch, and nada, plus two guys named Maurice Harris and Bruce Ellington.
Harris has been stuck in a horrible situation in D.C., but Ellington spent last season with not one, but two programs with all kinds of New England ties in Detroit (Matt Patricia) and Houston (Bill O’Brien). If he couldn’t cut it with the JV, why call him up to varsity?
It’s too late to fix the mistake via free agency unless you want to sign another aging member of Edelman’s draft class such as Michael Crabtree or Mike Wallace to the Eric Decker All-Stars.
The NFL Draft is still a few weeks away, which will give the Patriots a chance to at least add some warm bodies to the depth chart. Who knows, maybe this is the year. The year New England drafts a receiver that’ll eventually earn a second contract from the team.
Since taking over in 2000, drafting and developing a young receiver has been Bill Belichick’s white whale. Fittingly, Edelman is the only receiver to earn a second contract from the Patriots during his original stint with the team – after letting him test free agency. Plus, how much credit do you really deserve when that receiver was originally a seventh-round draft choice?
Belichick has drafted reasonably well at tight end through the years, the most notable examples being Daniel Graham in 2002, Ben Watson in 2004 and Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010.
Replacing Gronkowski won’t be like replacing Brady someday, but it’s probably the closest thing the Patriots will have to do in the meantime. Assuming the Patriots use (at least) one of their 12 draft picks on a tight end, get ready to hear about Gronk’s heir apparent as an answer to the woes in New England’s passing game, which is totally unfair. The Patriots did sign Matt LaCosse, who had 24 catches for the Denver Broncos last season, and just today, the talented-but-troubled Austin Seferian-Jenkins at the position.
Trading for a receiver or tight end is still an option, particularly as the draft draws closer. That’s when Randy Moss joined the Patriots in 2007. Both Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown could have passed for Moss Light, but they’ve already been dealt to the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders, respectively.
James White will still be catching passes out of the backfield from Tom Brady, who doesn’t have so much a security blanket as he has merely two life preservers in Edelman and White. It’s mystifying that a soon-to-be 42-year-old quarterback will have such little in the way of weaponry, not to mention a left tackle who’s never played an NFL snap coming off a torn Achilles.
Bill Belichick is essentially challenging Brady to a high-stakes game of H-O-R-S-E, forcing the greatest quarterback to ever play the game to make a bank shot with his off hand while blindfolded from half court.
If nothing else, it’s a Jedi mind trick to keep Brady motivated with six rings on his fingers. Brady has already countered just about every shot he’s had to make, but this is looking to be his toughest one yet.