Patriots

Patriots receiver group thinned out with Amendola, Mitchell unavailable

Patriots receiver group thinned out with Amendola, Mitchell unavailable

FOXBORO -- Chris Hogan looked exhausted when he slammed his helmet to the turf after a pass sent his way fell incomplete. Matthew Slater, annually one of the team's most well-connditioned players, seemed gassed. And when Julian Edelman was sent off for fighting with Stephon Gilmore, one of his fellow wideouts hoped an exception could be made to Bill Belichick's fight-and-you're-gone rule. 

Why? Patriots receivers were already spent, and they knew they still had to grind through an 11-on-11 hurry-up period under the August sun to finish off practice. 

The Patriots receiver group was considered to be one of the deepest spots on the roster going into training camp. But with both Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell sitting out for the majority of camp practices thus far, that spot looks thinner than many anticipated.

By the end of Tuesday's session, Hogan and Brandin Cooks -- consistently among the top-three players on the field for team periods -- were flanked at times by Slater and undrafted rookie Austin Carr. There just aren't many healthy and capable bodies at the position.

It's unclear as to what Amendola and Mitchell are dealing with. They have been on the field to start practices consistently, but they typically head to another field when team drills commence. Undrafted rookie wideout, Cody Hollister, has been out injured since Sunday. Tony Washington was signed on July 27. KJ Maye came on board Sunday. The only other receiver who has been a full participant in practices is second-year man Devin Lucien, who spent last season on the practice squad.  

The numbers game Tuesday meant the receiver group was ground down by the time the morning's work was through. Slater simply laughed when asked about all the extra conditioning he and his teammates got once Edelman was sent off. 

"Yeah," he said. "We needed conditioning. And I think that was the theme of today with the temperature and the practice structure. But this is going to make our team better. We need this. Coach Belichick knows what he's doing, he knows how to get his team ready to go, and there are no shortcuts to this thing. There's only one way to do it, and that's put in the work."

Amendola returned to Tuesday's session at the very end to field punts from the JUGS machine, and he appeared to be moving without issue. Perhaps the team is simply trying to manage their 31-year-old slot man at this point in the year so that he can be at his best in December in January. Last year, after catching 23 passes in the regular season, he caught 10 in the postseason, including eight for 78 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl LI.

Mitchell's situation bears watching as he has endured serious knee injuries dating back to his college days. His preseason work was limited last year after he suffered a dislocated elbow. 

Does the receiver situation in Foxboro warrant panic? No. Cooks, Edelman and Hogan provide the Patriots with a top-three that many teams would envy.

But if they can't get more able bodies on the field in short order, how the coaching staff manages the reps at that spot could become pretty tricky.

EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

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EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

0:55 - Patriots playing great as they stream roll the Raiders but Koppen explains that Belichick will knock them down as he strives for perfection. Also talk about how it takes a couple months into the season for the coaches and players to learn each other again.

5:40 - Stephon Gilmore playing excellent lined up against Michael Crabtree. Malcolm Butler bounces back but gives up the only score to Amari Cooper. Koppen suggest Butler’s contract situation might be affecting his play. 

7:50 - All in on the Patriots defense yet? Giardi and Koppen discuss the defensive play and the upcoming offenses the Patriots will be facing.

10:30 - Dan Koppen talks about job security in the NFL and if he ever worried about somebody else taking his job, and the cutthroat nature of the Patriots. 

13:50 - Tom Brady picking apart the Raiders and Jack Del Rio’s defenses throughout his career. 

17:45 - A debate about Patriots backup quarterbacks and if Matt Cassel was actually a good NFL QB. 

21:20 - A few game notes: Rex Burkhead’s fumble vs. the Raiders, LaAdrian Waddle filling in for Marcus Cannon. 

Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 

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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 

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