NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Brandon LaFell was targeted six times in his first two regular-season games as a member of the New England Patriots. And, heading into his third game of September, the former Carolina Panthers third-round pick had zero catches to his name.
He’s had 36 over the seven games since.
It’s been both a gradual and sudden rise for the 6’3”, 210-pound wide receiver; one that arrived along with the surveillance of his three-year, $9 million contact last March. Organized team activities proved to be about familiarization for him, and that continued through the summer as he looked to find a home on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.
Route miscommunications and concentration drops were the unintended consequences of a journey that sent him from the NFC South to the AFC East. The 28-year-old had to acclimate to the ball placement of quarterback Tom Brady instead of Cam Newton, and he had to acclimate to his own placement in the offense of coordinator Josh McDaniels instead of Mike Shula.
It required repetition.
“It was rocky this offseason because I was the new guy here. I didn’t know too much,” LaFell said in training camp. “I didn’t know where [Brady] wanted me to be. But the more reps I get with him and the more times he throws me the ball, day by day, we just continue to get better and I think we’re on a good path right now.”
Since then, the LSU product’s path has brought him to special teams, to running downs as a blocker, and to penalties, where he was flagged three times through the first three weeks of September. Yet now, heading into New England’s November bye week, LaFell’s growth has taken him to a role he hoped it would lead him to, even if it began elsewhere.
“I think that’s really been one of the best things about Brandon is just he’s finding different ways to contribute, whether it’s blocking, receiving, special teams,” head coach Bill Belichick said in August. “Whatever we’ve asked him to do, he’s done it and done it well. He’s gotten better at it. I think he’ll be able to carve out a role for himself here. It might be a big one, I don’t know, we’ll see.”
LaFell’s role has taken him to passing downs as the “X” receiver, where the mark he’s left has been a big one over the last seven weeks. Beyond his 36 receptions, his 514 receiving yards and five touchdowns are on pace surpass his career-best 677 receiving yards and five touchdowns by a meaningful margin.
He’s in line to finish Week 17 with 64 catches for 913 yards and nine touchdowns.
Even so, LaFell’s recent rise hasn’t hinged on him being a different player. It hasn’t hinged solely on him splitting cornerbacks and safeties on his way 30 yards down the field, or high-pointing passes 10 yards down the field.
It’s hinged on the coverage investment he’s provided the outside, and wherever else he’s stepped in.
During his tenure in Carolina, LaFell was seldom seen as the prototype for a split end. He ran 335 of his routes from the slot in 2013, 290 there in 2012, 115 in 2011, and 85 there as a rookie in 2010, according to Pro Football Focus.
Despite standing with the frame of an outside-the-numbers receiver, there were times when he didn’t fill it. And with more build-up speed than breakaway speed, there were situations where he could not position himself to gain more than possession.
He was tied for 19th among NFL wideouts in drops last season.
Parts of those sentiments may very well remain. But what LaFell has been for the Patriots has outweighed what he has not been. He’s been a different dynamic for an offense built on dissecting one.
LaFell has been physical – not only through his stature, yet through his technique. He’s remained undeterred at the line of scrimmage, leaning through press to establish inside leverage on in-cuts, quick slants, drags and drives.
Those same facets have applied to how he’s shouldered through contact to free himself on outs and corner routes.
From there has come LaFell’s footwork. The fifth-year pro has used it to generate separation in and out of breaks. And he’s done so without deliberation, planting his outside foot to propel opponents back as he breaks over the middle.
It’s become a prominent feature to his game on digs and posts.
Yet what LaFell has shown after the catch is also what has set him apart over the last two months. He’s shown the strength to strike, extending short cross and curl patterns up the field. And in fruition, his leg drive and pad level have left him running through tackles for more.
LaFell has stayed upright for 226 additional yards since he caught his first pass for the Patriots in Week 3.
The portrait painted by LaFell has been one of versatility throughout the route tree. It’s been one that’s affected each tier of defenses. And that was evidenced versus the Denver Broncos in Week 9, even when the outcome was not a completion.
Some of his incompletions to date have resonated just as well.
LaFell was able to get behind Denver’s secondary on Sunday evening, but he also got in front of it. Both courses of action expanded the offense’s dimensions as No. 19 aligned at the “X,” the “Z,” and in the seams.
But what he was able to do thenceforth held more significance than where he did it from.
He showed glimpses of what he has shown. Only a week removed from a career-high 11 catches, LaFell found himself as the intended recipient of 13 passes. He caught six and ultimately dropped two; however, his volume was indicative of the windows he created.
LaFell hauled in passes via a quick out, two slants, a deep curl, a whip route, a screen, and he was also tried deep on two fly routes. In the process, his patterns drew attention to all three levels. And his 54 yards and touchdown were in the byproduct of New England’s 43-21 victory.
The emergence hasn’t been rooted in one thing. It’s been rooted in being multiple; in getting open in more ways and from more places than one. Because of that, LaFell may not fit within the parameters of an “X.” He doesn’t need to.
Perhaps that was what New England saw in him back on March 15.
The presence of the unknown.