Unlike 2015, Patriots still have plenty of third-down options without Edelman

Unlike 2015, Patriots still have plenty of third-down options without Edelman

FOXBORO - Late December of 2015. The MetLife Stadium crowd was bearing down on the Patriots and Tom Brady. Trailing 20-13 in the fourth quarter, Brady and the offense needed a spark. 

Where would they find one? Julian Edelman was out with a broken foot. Danny Amendola was out as well. When Brady broke the huddle, he sent Rob Gronkowski outside the numbers. Brandon LaFell lined up on the same side, in the slot. To Lafell’s right was former offensive tackle Michael Williams, now wearing No. 85 and attempting to play tight end. On the opposite side, the forgettable Keyshawn Martin was deployed as a slot receiver, while James White lined up practically on the Jets bench. Not exactly the greatest show on turf.


 Brady had been under siege from that Jets front seven all afternoon and this play was no different. Right tackle Marcus Cannon appeared to sneak a peek inside and in doing so, pressure came quickly off the front-side tackle. Brady didn’t even have time to see Gronk break free, despite having his jersey tugged at. Instead, the Pats quarterback tried flat-footed to Martin, running a sharp out a yard short of the sticks. The ball was delivered low and Martin was unable to reel it in. Enter the punt team, again.
"A lot of guys have been in and out of the lineup,” said Brady after the game. “We have a lot of guys coming in off the street trying to play."
Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels almost made it work. They forced overtime in the Jets game before choosing to kick and not receive. We know how that went. Eventually, both Edelman and Amendola returned, and the Pats found themselves a play or two away from winning the AFC title game in Denver. But the absence of Edelman for seven full games that season revealed some troubling trends. 

The Pats became a much different team, especially on third downs. Without his ride-or-die slot receiver, Brady became more and more reliant on the untested James White (15 third-down targets over that stretch) and the oddly disengaged LaFell (13). Amendola tried to pick up the slack, but he was damaged goods (12 targets). The overall results were stark. Of Brady’s 70 third down throws in that stretch, 46 failed to extended drives. 
With Edelman now lost for the 2017-18 season thanks to the torn ACL, might the Pats find themselves in that same spot? Stop before you start. Here in late August, this team is far more equipped to handle Edelman’s injury than ever before. 

The additions of Brandin Cooks, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee provide alternative options, as does the growth of Chris Hogan in his second year in the system. All you have to do is look at last season's offense to see how diversified the offense was on third downs, and how the new skill-position players project to fill that void.
Edelman topped the team in third-down targets a season ago, with 57. He also led the team in third-down receptions with 38 (66.7 percent). But Brady and the rest of the quarterbacks had no issues looking elsewhere. Five different receivers caught 10 or more passes on third downs: White (23 of 33), Amendola (16 of 23), Hogan (14 of 20), Martellus Bennett (12 of 14) and Malcolm Mitchell (11 of 18). Four of those five equaled or topped the overall percentage of throws in Edelman’s direction, and had to do so without another critical third-down piece - Rob Gronkowski - missing half the season and the entire postseason. Another valued contributor, Dion Lewis, didn’t return from his own knee injury until the second half of the season. 

Of the names on this list, only Bennett is not back with the team.
“Guys are going to have to step up,” said Hogan earlier this week. “They're going to be asked to do different things. We're going to work on it during practice. It's the next man up mentality. There's a lot of guys on our offense with a lot of talent in that locker room. Guys will step up and have to make some plays…”
“Last year doesn’t matter,” said White. “It’s a what have you done lately mentality. But guys are ready.”
That’s the right attitude and while it may require a slightly different approach, the Pats have the tools to make it work and eventually hum. 2015 this is not. Not by a long shot.

Georgia the new Rutgers? Contingent of Bulldogs growing in New England

AP Photo

Georgia the new Rutgers? Contingent of Bulldogs growing in New England

FOXBORO -- David Andrews was excited. He just had a hard time showing it.

The Patriots center stayed up long enough to see his team pick at No. 23 in the first round of the NFL Draft, long enough to see his Georgia teammate Isaiah Wynn have his name called.

But the Thursday night prime time event isn't for everyone, and so Andrews wasn't fully conscious by the time the Patriots picked a second Bulldog, Sony Michel, at No. 31.

"I was in bed. My wife stayed up and watched it," Andrews said last week. "I was in bed and I saw Isaiah get drafted, and then I passed out. She came busting in th'.;e room about Sony getting drafted, and at that point, I really didn’t care. I was just trying to get to sleep, but . . . No, I was very happy for them. It was awesome to talk to them. They were here the next day. I didn’t really get to see them, but it’s good to see them around, see some familiar faces"

Suddenly, with five Georgia players on the roster -- Andrews, Wynn, Michel, Malcolm Mitchell and undrafted free agent John Atkins -- they now make up one of the largest contingents of players from one school in Bill Belichick's locker room.


Iowa is right there with Georgia at five players (Aidrian Clayborn, Cole Croston, James Ferentz, Riley McCarron, Matt Tobin). Vanderbilt is next on the list with four (Adam Butler, Andrew Jelks, Jordan Matthews, Ralph Webb), even with Rutgers (Devin and Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon, Kenny Britt). Arkansas follows closely behind with three (Trey Flowers, Dietrich Wise, Cody Hollister).

If you look at the coaches involved in helping certain groups of players develop, the Patriots connections become even a little more clear.

At Iowa, it's Kirk Ferentz, who served as a Belichick assistant in Cleveland back in the 90s. At Vanderbilt, Belichick thinks highly enough of Derek Mason that he gave Mason and the Vandy coaching staff a behind-the-scenes look at spring workouts in New England last year. At Rutgers, Belichick's relationship with former Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano has been well-documented.

Then there are the coaches who've bounced around a bit and impacted multiple players on the Patriots roster at different spots.

Bret Bielema, who's been helping the Patriots this offseason (and was spotted with Belichick at The Preakness this weekend), coached all three Arkansas products as well as James White during his time at Wisconsin. Bo Pellini has coached three Patriots (Vincent Valentine and Rex Burkhead at Nebraska, Derek Rivers at Youngstown State).

Then there's that Georgia connection. Kirby Smart coached all three Bulldog rookies as well as the two Alabama products on the Patriots roster (Dont'a Hightower, Cyrus Jones) when Smart was coaching defense for the Crimson Tide. Former Georgia coach and current Miami sideline boss Mark Richt recruited all five Georgia players currently on the Patriots roster, and he coached both Miami rookies now in New England (Braxton Berrios, Trent Harris).

Asked why Belichick and the Patriots front office would be so interested in acquiring so many players from the same school, Andrews replied, "That’s a psychology question. Man, I don’t know . . .  

"You know, no, I don’t think there’s really like one thing. I think those are some great guys. They all work really hard. They’ve been great teammates to me, so that’s something you can always respect, and it’s guys like that you love having in your locker room and playing with.


No matter how you look at it, the Georgia connection in New England is as strong as ever.

"Georgia the new Rutgers? Oh, I’m going to have to talk to Dev and Du about that and all those guys," Andrews said with a smile. "We might be now. We’ll have to see."


Johnny Manziel signing with Hamilton of the CFL

Johnny Manziel signing with Hamilton of the CFL

Johnny Manziel won't be in the Patriots' plans at quarterback anytime soon.

The former Browns QB, Heisman winner in 2012 and first-round pick in 2014 announced on Saturday morning that he had decided to sign a contract to play in the CFL in order to "further my football career after a long break."

"I believe this is the best opportunity for me moving forward and I'm eager for what the future holds," Manziel tweeted. 

Manziel also announced that he'll be co-hosting the "Comeback Szn" podcast for Barstool Sports alongside his agent Erik Burkhardt and our buddy, former "Boston Sports Tonight" and "Football Fix" co-host, Kayce Smith.

"It's just a really good fit," Burkhardt said on "Comeback Szn." "Good offense. It's a really good league. It's been around forever, we vetted it well, and at the end of the day, like Johnny said, he wants to play ball."

Manziel, who's been out of football the past two years because of substance abuse and emotional problems, has battled bipolar disorder. He will play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats under head coach June Jones, who has also coached in the NCAA and NFL ranks. Jones served as offensive coordinator of the Falcons (1991-93) before becoming their head coach (1994-96). He was also quarterbacks coach and interim head coach for the Chargers in 1998 before heading to the college ranks. Jones coached at Hawaii then at SMU, where he was the first person to offer Manziel a college scholarship. 

CFL rookie contracts are for two years, meaning the Tiger-Cats will have his rights through the end of the 2019 CFL season. 

Earlier this year, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie reiterated the league's stance that they're not in the business of letting players break their contracts to pursue NFL opportunities.

The Patriots took a look at him this spring, but even if they had interest, the possibility of which we discussed on Quick Slants the Podcast last month, any marriage will have to wait.