NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots officially announced the signing of former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell on Monday. But his purpose in New England’s offense will not be announced anywhere other than on the field.
The 6’2”, 210-pound LSU product agreed to a three-year, $9 million pact with the team, according to NFL Network’s Albert Breer, after catching 49 passes for 627 yards and five touchdowns as a starter last season.
The 27-year-old has played in 60 regular-season games since being selected 78th overall in the 2010 draft. He has amassed over 600 yards receiving over the last three years, all while never catching fewer than 36 passes over the last four years. He has gradually increased his touchdown totals as well, notching one in 2010, three in 2011, four in 2012 and five in 2013.
Now throughout his four-year NFL career, LaFell’s playing style and production have been steady but unspectacular for quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers. Yet the way in which he accrues his production is what makes him an interesting fit for quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots.
As it should be noted with every transaction during the NFL offseason, acquiring a free agent isn’t based on past numbers; it’s based on finding pieces to fit the future plans of an organization. Head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio wouldn’t have invested in the ex-Panther if they believed otherwise.
Building for future plans has seen the Patriots address certain positions wholeheartedly of late. And on a roster filled with youth, the wide receiver position is the nursery. LaFell provides viable competition and depth to the growing corps without stunting it. He joins a group led in age by the 28-year-old Danny Amendola and the recently re-signed 27-year-old Julian Edelman. And though he ran the 12th-most slot routes of any NFL wideout last season, per Pro Football Focus, he doesn’t make either of them redundant.
LaFell is a player who can complement proven commodities as well as the six wideouts on the current roster who are fresh off rookie and first-year campaigns. It’s because he has the size and fluidity to work all over the field. His skill set can push 2013 second-round pick Aaron Dobson as an “X” receiver, all while pushing 2013 fourth-round pick Josh Boyce and the undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins as “Z” receivers.
As PFF notes, LaFell was targeted 83 times last year – tied for 44th at the position. For a long receiver who lacks great get-off or straight-line speed, No. 11 learned to be creative. Because he can be mirrored on verticals, fades, drives and slants when facing compact and nimble cornerbacks, he has had to find separation in another manner.
LaFell creates separation with the nuances. His most effective routes are typically the ones that begin with an inside, outside or stutter release, maintaining the element of surprise. That continues downfield, as he plays under control through the duration of his route. Whether its man or zone, he does so through the cuts, turns and pivots which sell each pattern to the best of his ability.
Just when the cornerback begins to predict, LaFell’s downfield sprint can transition into a comeback.
He doesn’t round off his assignments, nor does he rely strictly on athleticism and sacrifice technique. But by keeping his arms swinging and exuding deceptive body language, LaFell is able to escape to his destination.
Although LaFell has good but not great get-up speed, for a larger receiver, he moves with excellent 75-degree lean, hip flexibility and bend. All of which help him propel through turns without chopping his strides – he did, after all, clock a 6.81 three-cone drill at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine.
The culmination of those traits is heavily visualized in his sluggo, post and corner routes, where he is able to accelerate into his moves.
LaFell knows how to use the sideline and shows impressive field awareness. He will look back to the quarterback and ad-lib if the play breaks down or the passer decides to scramble. You can tell he understands the concepts of each route, in that respect, and you can tell he is privy to the soft spots in coverage.
That being said, for a receiver who lined up in the slot and motioned inline at times, it can be argued that LaFell is best served as an outside threat. Part of why he was employed as an inside receiver was because Carolina’s prominent two-back, one-tight end sets often facilitated only one true split end. Yet within that personnel, LaFell had difficulty crossing the face of linebackers on underneath slant routes and five-yard in routes. Even if he had the durable build to catch passes through traffic, he had a hard time breaking through traffic.
LaFell was far more dangerous in the intermediate, where he could drop his defender-side shoulder to swing underneath the safeties or cornerbacks at the top of his pattern. And when running variations of out routes, he had an inherent advantage over the unturned heads of cornerbacks.
LaFell has the spacial awareness and length to high-point the football and draw attention in the red zone, but his relatively small 8 3/4-inch hands see him drop more catchable passes than you’d like. He dropped eight passes last season, and the aforementioned image was ultimately one of them.
But contrary to popular trend, LaFell remains a trusted receiver over the middle, whether it’s on a skinny post or a 12-yard dig. This isn’t due to his lack of top-end speed; it’s due to his competitiveness. He is willing to see a pass through to his fingertips when a jarring hit is about to contest it.
He runs determined, and he runs through the catch.
And even though LaFell was part of only four plays over 20 yards last season, he isn’t barred from the big play. He had 13 plays over 20 yards in each of his previous two seasons.
It’s about tapping into that potential in the hopes of grooming a reliable contributor.
What the Patriots are getting with LaFell is a different dynamic. While he often aligned as a slot receiver, he isn’t one. He isn’t going to run the same routes as Amendola or Edelman or Boyce; he’s going to work the boundary and occasionally find daylight deep between the hashes.
LaFell may not be the main headline signing of March’s free agency, but he may be the type of ingredient the Patriots offense was looking for all along.
He’s not a power forward who will push off and box out of press-man on a regular basis, but he will have to be accounted for inside the 20. He’s not the kind of pass-catcher who will garner a steady dose of eight targets per game, but he is the kind who might just coincide with the penchant throws of Brady.
And even if he’s not a first, second or third receiving option in the offense, LaFell is the type of player who can help out in other ways than receiving.
He can help open space for his teammates, too.