Tom Brady will have to adjust to new corps of receivers

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) listens to coach Bill Belichick (center) and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (right) during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Houston Texans  in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Gillette Stadium in January.
Kirby Lee | USA TODAY Sports
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) listens to coach Bill Belichick (center) and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (right) during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Gillette Stadium in January.
Posted April 18, 2013, at 10:31 p.m.

The tumultuous offseason of turmoil and turnover continues on Tom Brady’s depth chart of pass catchers in New England.

One of the usual certainties of the NFL — Brady’s offense will put up a lot of yards and points — doesn’t seem such a death-and-taxes lock at this still early point in the team-building process.

While the biggest news of the offseason was the free-agent departure of Wes Welker — taking his 672 receptions from his six seasons in New England west with him to join forces with Payton Manning and the Broncos — the alterations of Brady’s list of pass catchers is a far deeper and ongoing process.

On the heels of Welker’s leaving, the Patriots then released veteran Brandon Lloyd after one lackluster season in New England when the sides couldn’t reach an agreement on a restructured deal for the veteran who was due a $3 million roster bonus. Even though he didn’t live up to expectations, Lloyd’s 74 passes and 911 yards trailed only Welker’s 118 and 1,354 among the Patriots receivers contributing to the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense a year ago.

In an effort to restock Brady’s cupboard, New England swiftly replaced Welker with a younger slot version, free agent Danny Amendola. The former Ram has dealt with a number of injuries in his career that make him a more dubious option than the ultra-durable Welker, but the younger target has already started working out with Brady in throwing sessions on the campus of USC.

The additions continued last week when the Patriots re-signed versatile Welker facsimile Julian Edelman. However, the Patriots lost their bid for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders when the Steelers matched their one-year, $2.5 million offer.

Edelman converted from college quarterback to become New England’s top punt returner — he averaged 15.5 a return last fall and has three career touchdowns — but like Amendola, has struggled to stay healthy. Edelman missed time to both a broken hand and foot last fall, limiting him to nine games played, and has played in only 48 of a possible 64 games in four seasons.

Add in former Bill Donald Jones (82 catches and six touchdowns in three seasons in Buffalo) and veteran Michael Jenkins (40 catches and two scores last fall in Minnesota) and the Patriots have added competitive bodies if not impressive overall talent to the team.

But overhauling the wide receiver spot isn’t the only uncertainty in the passing game.

After twice breaking his left forearm in the final two months of last season — and missing the Patriots AFC title loss to the Steelers — Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski has been dealing with an infection in the arm all offseason. The infection required a third surgery already as well as antibiotic treatments at Mass General Hospital, and reports last week indicated that the guy who’s far-and-away Brady’s top red-zone target might need to undergo another surgery that could possibly put his offseason workouts in jeopardy.

So even the guy who should be the unquestioned centerpiece of the Patriots passing attack — Gronkowski has 38 touchdowns among his 187 catches despite missing time to injury over his first three seasons — is dealing with questions this offseason that are about more than his questionable dancing at a Las Vegas nightclub.

At this point the ledger on the number of passes caught by Brady a year ago lost from the depth chart this spring is 232 — including the 40 receptions change-of-pace back Danny Woodhead took with him as a free agent to San Diego — not including pending free agents such as Deion Branch and Donte Stallworth. That leaves Edelman’s 21 catches as the top returning receiver, and the only other guy on the depth chart at the wide receiver position who’s hauled in a Brady throw in a game is Pro Bowl special teamer Matthew Slater — and that’s a single career reception.

There is little doubt that Brady will find ways to move the ball through the air successfully in 2013. But it will clearly be with a slew of different weapons.

A Patriots passing game that’s ranked among the top couple in the league since Welker and Randy Moss joined the attack in 2007 is undergoing a pretty major overhaul this offseason. That means Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have their work cut out for them this summer and fall.

At least one returning target — tight end Aaron Hernandez was fourth on the team with 51 catches for 483 yards with five touchdowns despite missing six-plus games to an ankle injury — doesn’t seem too worried about all the changes.

“As long as you have Tom Brady,” Hernandez told the Boston Herald, “no matter who is around him, it’s going to be a great offense.”

 

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