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New England has had one of the most creative and flexible offenses for the last decade. From 2002 to 2011, the Patriots offense was always good but it was rarely predictable. On paper, the Patriots arguably have their best and deepest set of skill position players in franchise history. But with the addition of Brandon Lloyd to a group that includes Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, many are wondering what the breakdown will be in the passing game in 2012. Let’s not forget that Tom Brady passed for the second most yards in NFL history last year and then the team signed Josh McDaniels’ favorite Brandon Lloyd.

Before speculating on the 2012 season, we need to look at how the Patriots passing game has operated in the past. The chart below shows a breakdown of targets in the New England passing game for each of the past ten years by position:

Some thoughts:

  • Kevin Faulk used to get around 55 targets per season, but New England has essentially fazed the running back out of the passing game. I doubt that is by design, but more a reflection of New England’s failure to find the right replacement at the position. Note that New England signed ex-Florida Gator running back and Olympic silver medalist Jeff Demps last week, although he is unlikely to make an immediate impact.
  • From ’02 to ’05, the Patriots had a pretty consistent offense. Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch, and David Givens each spent time as the main receiver, and in ’02, ’04 and ’05, wide receivers as a group saw 63-64% of the Patriots’ targets. In ’03, Brown had fallen off while Givens and Patten weren’t main cogs in the offense, but otherwise, New England’s offensive philosophy didn’t vary. Then, after the 2005 season, the Patriots traded Deion Branch, who had seen 23% of the team’s targets in that season. The ’06 Patriots responded by throwing more to Ben Watson, which ultimately proved not to be the answer.
  • In 2006, Reche Caldwell led the team in targets, which prompted the Patriots to add Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the following off-season. Whereas the targets for the WR1 and WR2 had been declining from ’04 to ’06, in 2007, Moss and Welker received over 50% of the team’s targets, and the tight ends and running backs became less integral. In 2008, even without Brady, little changed with Matt Cassel running the offense, with the most notable decline being the lack of targets for the fourth, fifth and sixth wide receivers. 2009 resembled 2007, as Brady got the Sam Aikens and Joey Galloways of the world involved. By that time, the Patriots were running a full spread offense, and had almost entirely forgotten about the tight end. But much of that was out of necessity: Ben Watson was in his final year with the team and the Patriots wanted more speed on the field; New England had signed Chris Baker to be the backup tight end, but the long-time Jet had little left in his tank.
  • In that context, perhaps it isn’t surprising that New England added Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 draft. Moss had worn out his welcome, and New England struggled to find a true replacement. The Patriots turned to their young tight ends, along with Danny Woodhead, but still were weak at wide receiver as Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman were not competent as backup wide receivers. In the off-season, the Patriots signed Chad Ochocinco, which turned out to be a disaster. Outside of the WR1 and WR2, the other wide receivers and the running backs averaged 39% of the team’s targets from ’02 to ’10; in 2011, that number dropped to 18%, the first time that group failed to have at least 31% of the team’s targets. In ’03, for example, the backup WRs and the RBs had nearly 50% of the targets, but the talent was there: David Givens, Bethel Johnson, David Patten, Kevin Faulk, Larry Centers and Antowain Smith weren’t stars, but were competent in their roles. Last year, Ochocinco, Edelman and Tiquan Underwood added almost nothing, while only Woodhead was a threat in the passing game among the running backs.

So what can we expect for 2011? BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone, but New England doesn’t seem likely to give Shane Vereen many more targets. I think we can safely conclude that the Patriots won’t be depending on their running backs to gain yards through the air in 2012. But I do think the Patriots want more from their wide receivers, and the signing of Brandon Lloyd should increase the production of both the WR2 and the WR3, which is where Branch will now be. Assuming he isn’t cut, I doubt Branch is fazed out completely — Ochocinco saw only 5% of the Patriots targets last year, but usually New England will target their third wide receiver around 10% of the time. With so many mouths to feed, Welker is likely to see a small decline in attention. If we put Welker at 23%, Lloyd at 19%, Branch at 9% and the other wide receivers at 3%, that would mean Brady would target his receivers on 54% of his passes. Giving the running backs 10% — the same number as last season — would leave 36% for the tight ends. We’ll probably see both Gronkowski and Hernandez each up with 18% of the targets, as Brady hasn’t shown a significant preference for either player.

Assuming strong production per target, it’s certainly possible for Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez to all have monster years in 2011 *and* for Brandon Lloyd to improve on Branch’s numbers and for Branch to improve on Ochocinco’s performance. Of course, all of this assumes — or signals — that Tom Brady is going to have a monster year if things go according to plan. But to expect Brady to improve on last year’s numbers may be asking too much.

For fantasy purposes, the bigger question might be about the size of the pie rather than about its breakdown. If New England’s defense is better, the Patriots could certainly end up passing less this year. Brady may be more effective per pass, and could put up lofty touchdown numbers, but without a high number of attempts (aided by a bad defense) it’s unlikely we see Brady set his sights on 5,000 yards again. I think the Patriots offense can handle the addition of Brandon Lloyd, and think it’s clear that Belichick wants to incorporate that vertical threat on the outside into his offense. And let’s not forget, the offensive line is as unsettled as it’s been in years. From a fantasy perspective, though, it will be important not to chase last year’s numbers too much.

If Welker and Gronkowski each lose 10% of their targets, and then the Patriots also throw 5% less frequently, those small slices can add up. Welker with 100 catches is a lot less valuable than Welker with 122 catches. I don’t think any of the stars in New England bust, but if that defense can approach league average levels, all of the Patriots stars may end up failing to live up to their fantasy draft status. I suspect that Brady finds the open receiver and doesn’t lock on any of his targets, leaving Gronkowski, Welker, Lloyd and Hernandez with very similar receiving yards totals. Gronkowski should lead in touchdowns and Welker in receptions, but otherwise good luck predicting which player Brady will lock in on in any given week. One mark that could possibly fall: New England might be the first team to have four 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.

  • Andrew

    That seems really ambitious to me. I actually anticipate Welker getting about the same number of targets as he always does and ending up with over 100 catches, but Lloyd being more of a downfield player with relatively few catches, but high yardage totals and lots of long TDs, something like 50 catches, 700-800 yards, and anywhere from 8-12 TDs. I also expect Gronk to have a worse season than last year, but not to be anything less than elite just the same, with 10+ TDs and 1000+ receiving yards. However, I think Branch maintains roughly the same production, and Lloyd’s piece of the pie will mainly come from Hernandez. I think having a vertical threat around will lessen the total number of balls for the shorter routes, and while Hernandez is fully capable of going downfield, he’s also clearly not the first choice for the deep ball. As such, I expect most of the short-to-medium range balls to go to Welker and Branch, with Hernandez and Woodhead being dump off options and Gronk and Lloyd stretching the field a lot. But with Belichick, guessing what he’ll actually do is a fool’s game. So I’ll eagerly wait and see what happens this season.

  • There’s an article in Chris Brown’s The Essential Smart Football that makes the case that the Patriots 2011 offense was designed specifically in response to Rex Ryan’s Jet’s defense. They had been clobbering Brady, so the Pats went out and got two tight ends who create matchup problems, thus regaining control and making the Jets react to them.

    • So I think that the decrease in running back targets (and the increase in targets to tight ends) was absolutely a schematic change, and I think they are going to try to do the same thing again this year, until Ryan or somebody stops them. I don’t think there is any chance of them throwing 19% of their passes to Lloyd. Take 10% from him and give it to the tight ends, and we’re closer to what should actualyl happen.