Finding Brandon LaFell’s Purpose in the Patriots’ Receiving Plans

Based on his utilization in the Carolina Panthers’ system, wideout Brandon LaFell appears to fit New England’s offensive plans. (USA Today Sports Images)

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.

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29 Responses to “Finding Brandon LaFell’s Purpose in the Patriots’ Receiving Plans”

  1. jim r says:

    Thank GAWD no more MALLETT to Houston trades, they signed Fitzpatrick

    • acm says:

      not really. Signing Fitz allows the Texans to finally be able to cut (trade is unlikely) what would have been a super-expensive back-up in Schaub. They are looking for a starter at QB and Fitz ain’t it.

  2. qwerty says:

    $3M guarantee for such a lowly receiver who hasn’t proven himself with patriots is absurd. This kind of money guarantees him a roster spot since the signing will make the team look foolish if he doesn’t make it.

  3. Dan Sullivan says:

    Patriot Predictions
    Free Agents
    Rich Ohrenberger G/C Chargers (ex patriot)
    Brandon Deaderick DT Jaguars (ex patriot)
    Pat Sims NT Raiders
    Pat Angerer ILB Colts

    1 Some team will trade with Pats to pick QB.
    2 Jimmy Ward S Northern Illinois
    2 Allen Robinson WR Penn State
    3 Scott Crichton DE Oregon St
    3 De Anthony Thomas RB Baylor
    4 Richard Rogers TE California
    6 Justin Ellis NT Louisiana Tech
    6 Matt Pathan OT BC
    7 Prince Shembo ILB ND

    • acm says:

      not a fan, sorry. You seem to just plug in players based on general position without any care of their specific characteristics or circumstances.

      Deadrick in free agency? Honestly, why? They let him go a while a go and since then he’s done nothing to change the perception he is an average back-up, at best. If they need a DT, it would be of the run-stuffing variety and Pat Sims looks like their best bet at this stage of FA.

      Jimmy Ward is a player I like a lot but have two issues with that pick – 1) he is FS and unless they are getting rif of Mccourty, this would be a redundant pick. They do need a new SAF but considering they’ve been trying to pretty much recreate the Seattle secondary, it would suggest it’s a SS safety they need and not a player like Ward and 2) yes, he is explosive and breaks on the ball at short distances and does so better than Mccourty but for a FS he lacks the top speed and thus his deep ball coverage ability is questionable.
      Want a safety here, Deaone Bucannon would be a better fit for what NE is trying to do with the secondary this year – a hard hitter than isn’t a liability in coverage either.

      WR Robinson – the exact same problem with picking Matthews in the 3rd last mock. Without them getting Lafelle, there may have been an outside chance for a WR this early but now, not a shot in hell. Robinson coming out of Penn State doesn’t change the fact that a pick like this doesn’t make sense under the circumstances.

      DeAnthony Thomas is a weak RB, too weak even for a change of pace RB in the NFL at this point. Kenjon Barner was a more NFL ready player than Thomas and Barner still went in the 6th. Thomas will be lucky to go in the 6th, considering he is not a burner either for a guy this small – he is alike the molasses version of Dri Archer.

      Crichton is the only pick I like among the early ones even if I have a hard time seeing him fall to late 3rd. Not impossible though.

      The rest of the picks, who cares really. But Shembo is another pick where you show you don’t particular care about the details surrounding a player but just his position. Shembo was at the center of a police investigation at Notre dame involving an assault on a girl, who later committed suicide. He wasn’t charged but the questions remained. Honestly, in what universe is BB picking Shembo less than an year removed from the Hernandez debacle?

      • Dan Sullivan says:

        Thomas is a great open field runner and playmaker similar to Jackson of Eagles.
        As far as wide receivers same can be said last year they didn’t need Tight End with
        Gronk and Hernandez they ended up needing a TE.
        About two ex Patriots I think they both can help quite a bit and they are not expensive.
        Shembo I can only say he wasn’t charged and Notre Dame has a great reputation.
        I hope the Pats stay aggressive in free agency and you enjoy the Draft always a fun day
        my wife knows to clear out that day!

        • acm says:

          Thomas has got nothing to do with Jackson, he is not a Wr in the first place and doesn’t have the strength and even worse the speed to be a sure-fire playmaker at the NFL; he is college player and mark my words – he is not getting drafted any earlier than the 6th, if that.

          You can’t go about the draft trying to foresee unforeseeable circumstances. drafting a WR with a high pick because they might need one down the road if he tries to stop his pizza from falling off the front seat, is textbook ridiculous. By that same token you should use high picks to build redundancy at virtually all positions on the team. Why WR exactly? Why not TE considering the need for TE is real and pressing and you don’t need to come up with scenarios as it’s already there. Niklas or Fiedorowizs with that 2nd round pick would be much better business than a redundancy builder like WR Robinson.

          There was a reason why the ex-Pat is an ex-Pat – the guy got several years to prove himself and was barely serviceable; bringing him back would be a moot point now that there are young guy already on the roster, who’ve shown great promise (Siliga, Chris Jones, Vellano). If you are gonna bring someone in, they need to be an improvement; the only thing Deadrick would do would be bring down the overall/average level of the DL. Needless and pointless move.

          Notre Dame and kelly have great reputations but that doesn’t automatically extend to every player on that roster. Lack of actual charges vs Shembo mean little in these circumstance after the Hernandez debacle. You can bet your house if there is one player BB isn’t drafting this year, that player is Shembo.

          Draft days are always good but obviously not for your wife. 😉

  4. J H TARBORO says:

    Good article Oliver, you can line up Lafell everywhere(x,y,and z) receiver. The name of game is competition . NE WRs 6ft and under ( Reggie Dunn 5’8 Danny Amendola 5’10 Julian Edelman 5’11 Josh Boyce 5’11 Kembrell Thompkins 6’0)
    NE WRs over 6ft (Greg Orton 6’2 Brandon Lafell 6’2 Aaron Dobson 6’2 Mark Harrison 6’3)
    Camp will be competitive this year and i’m sure more are coming via the draft or UDFA.

  5. Dan Sullivan says:

    If I were making the calls for Patriots I would stay away from Jared Allen and DeSean Jackson.

    Patriot Free Agents
    Kenny Britt WR Titans (His last chance and I think he takes advantage of opportunity)
    Wade Smith G Texans
    Reed Dougherty S Redskins
    Terrance Cody NT Ravens

    1 Troy Niklas TE ND
    2 Kelcy Quarles DL South Carolina
    3 Jordan Matthews WR Vanderbilt
    4 Bryan Stork C Florida St.
    6 Jay Bromley DT Syracuse
    6 James White RB Wisconsin
    7 Max Bullough ILB Michigan St.

    • steve earle says:

      Okay Dan you say you would stay away from Allen and Jackson then leave us hanging. So what is your reasoning for this?

      • Dan Sullivan says:

        The Patriots are all about team Jackson and Allen aren’t those type of guys. I would rather
        have Wooten of Bears and draft Cooks WR . A lot less headaches than Jackson and Allen.
        Jackson is always complaining of Contract and Allen I think would rather retire.

        • steve earle says:

          I see, that’s a valid concern, and probable D-Jax more then Allen but Given cap concerns we could only afford one of them anyway even if we traded Amendola even up and released Wolfolk too. I’m sure BB is doing due diligence on the idea and would be surprised if we got either one of them but if we did I’d prefer Allen, we need the pass rush more then the WR imo.

    • acm says:

      not a fan of the top 3 picks, after that it gets better. Niklas isn’t a can’t miss player, that’s who you take in the 1st. One of Niklas or CJF would be there in late 2nd and early 3rd even, no need to flush value away like that.

      Quarles I like a lot and the value there in late 2nd sounds about right. However, he is very similar to Armstead and Bromley (who you take later) so that creates unnecessary redundancy for that type of player. If you are gonna improve the middle of the D, it should be with a player who’d help stop the run – DaQuan jones, for example, would be a much better fit in that regard than Quarles.

      WR Matthews in the 3rd would be a huge waste of a pick – why take on a WR when you already have two such players (similar body type) on the roster in LaFell and Dobson and quite possibly even Britt. Rookie WRs need time to adjust to the NFL game, more so than players at other positions i.e. you’d be spending that 3rd rounder on a player who’s unlikely to make a big difference for a year and even two. If you absolutely want another big body WR, then taking him late in the draft would be better. Matthews is not exactly unique in his skill set, after all.

      • Dan Sullivan says:

        A lot of good points the NT from Penn State would be a good fit. Your right if they sign Britt
        don’t draft another WR. Finally the thing I have always enjoined about Pats is they are not
        afraid to take a chance and Niklas I see as another Gronk.

        Enjoy the Draft and rest of free agency you sound like a smart fan.

        • steve earle says:

          DeQuan Jones DT Penn St is on my draft board low 2nd high 3rd and agree he would be a good fit. Another guy I like as a good fit is Christian Jones lb Fla ST. Brings up the quest ion is there any restrictions of how many Jones’s a team can have? Kidding.

    • GM-In-Training says:

      There’s no proof Troy Niklas will ever be a dynamic receiving threat. In the 1st round, I don’t think you take a chance on something like that.

    • Jim R says:

      If they can draft Jordan Matthews in the third round that would be outstanding. Bromley and Bullough late looks good. Rb you can get UDFA. IMO

  6. Marc says:

    That’s UN-Drafted guys BTW

    • Pete H. says:

      Got it – most likely you’ll only get a few practice squad players anyways out of the undrafted crop, maybe a special teams or developmental guy will earn a roster spot. Especially with the multitude of 6th and 7th round picks, those guys may crowd out some of the undrafted folks and make it harder for them to stick. When you plan an off-season, I don’t think you can ever rely on an undrafted player to fill a spot on the 53-man roster – if they do it’s a bonus.
      If the draft/free agency work out that way, I think a lot of people would be very happy with the off-season.

  7. Marc says:

    March 19, 2014 at 11:03 am
    Here is my Pats offseason FWIW.
    FREE AGENTS: Shaun Phillips-DE……Kenny Britt-WR….Charles Woodson-S….Ryan Firzpatrick-QB…..REALEASE: Adrian Wilson…..,Vince Wilfork….Dan Conolly…..TRADES: Ryan Mallett-HOU- Round 3-PICK#65……..PICK#29-MIN-PICKS-Round2-PICK#40,Round4-PICK#104,Round5-PICK#136……RESIGN: LaGarrett Blount,Will Svitek for depth purposes


    ROUND-2-PICK#40:-Kony Ealy-DE-Missouri
    ROUND-2-PICK#62:-Austin Serifin-Jenkins-TE-Washington
    ROUND-3-PICK#65:-Telvin Smith-LB-Florida State
    ROUND-3-PICK#93:-Weston Richburg-C-Colorado State
    ROUND-4-PICK#104:-Will Sutton-DT-Arizona State
    ROUND-4-PICK#126:-Jerick McKinnon-RB-Georgia Southern
    ROUND-5-PICK#136:-Chris Watt-G-Notre Dame
    ROUND-6-6PICK#182:-Connor Shaw-QB-South Carolina
    ROUND-6-PICK#190:-Spencer Long-G/C-Nebraska
    ROUND-6-COMP(Pat Chung):-Nickoe Whitley-S-Mississippi State
    ROUND-7-PICK#221:-Tyler Starr-LB-South Dakota
    ROUND-7-COMP(Danny Woodhead):-Colt Lyera-TE-Oregon

    Thoughts???……figure they address their holes they currently have and the multiple G picks are for future as Mankins is getting older and his cap hit will become something to look at in the next year or 2

    • Ryan says:

      I like the projected offseason signings. The draft looks pretty strong, except that Will Sutton as the only DT picked worries me greatly. First of all, I think he will be picked in the third and second of all I am worried about his weight issues and the drop-off in production that he experienced. Also, I like the idea of Woodson through free agency but I would argue that a safety should be drafted as well, although later in the draft in this scenario.

      • Marc says:

        Ya the one DT kinda worries me too and I agree with Sutton I rather him play at 285-290 instead of 300 but thanks for th feedback just wanted to see what others thought of my thought process…

    • acm says:

      not bad, by any means. Not sure about Ealy but he can do. An alternative to Sutton there in early 4th – the only thorn in my eyes – would be Caraun Reid. Better player and better fit altogether.

    • Sean says:

      I like the picks a lot. but I like Cyril Richardson and Daquan Jones over Richburg and Sutton. Other than that, it looks a lot like my mock draft

    • colton d says:

      thats one hell of a plan. that would be superbowl for damn sure

  8. TD says:

    I don’t think Coach wants to “cut” Wilfork, he just wants him at a lower number. He may get his wish as most teams that would want him will be up against the cap after the draft and before OTA’s. That’s why Vince wants his release now, because as teams get closer to training camp their rosters will be pretty much set except for injuries and/or the players at the end of the roster.

    I’m sure Coach and the team know what his value on the open market would be for a 30-something NT coming off of Achilles injury is to the dollar and is willing to hold on to him until he has very few options left short of retiring.

  9. Pete H. says:

    Complete off-season plan:

    Wilfork, A. Wilson
    McCourty, Gostkowski
    Pay cut:
    Connolly (~1.5 million)
    Small Free Agency Signings:
    G – Travelle Wharton (1-2 years, ~1.75 mil per year)
    DE – Anthony Spencer (1 year, ~1.75 mil)
    S – Quentin Mikell (1 year, ~1.75 mil)
    RB – LeGarrette Blount (2 years, ~1.75 mil per year)
    TE – Dustin Keller (1 year, ~1.15 mil)
    LB – Desmond Bishop (1 year, ~1 mil)
    OT – Will Svitek (1 year, vet min.)

    1st – DT/DE Tuitt
    2nd – C Richburg
    3rd – DE Lawrence
    4th – TE Lynch
    6th – CB Colvin
    6th – G Long
    6th (comp) – TE Blanchflower
    6th (comp) – LB Fortt
    7th – DE/TE Webster

    WR-Ward; WR-Enunwa; G-Gates; QB-Mathews; RB-Josey; RB-Fluellen; FB-Jordan; TE-Flacco; LS-Heit; DT-Kerr; DE-Sutton; LB-Lokombo; CB-Williams; CB-James

    90 man depth chart:
    OL (15):
    Solder, Mankins, Connolly, Wharton, Vollmer, Cannon, Kline, Richburg, Barker, Svitek, Devey, Long, Cave, Gates, Mattes
    QB (3):
    Brady, Mallet, Mathews
    RB (7):
    Ridley, Vereen, Blount, Bolden, Gray, Josey, Fluellen
    FB (2):
    Develin, Jordan
    TE (7):
    Gronkowski, Keller, Hoomanawanui, Lynch, Blanchflower, Williams, Flacco
    WR (12):
    Edelman, Dobson, LaFell, Amendola, Boyce, Slater, Thompkins, Harrison, Dunn, Orton, Enunwa, Ward
    DE (8):
    Jones, Ninkovich, Spencer, Lawrence, Buchanan, Bequette, Webster, Sutton
    DT (8):
    Kelley, Tuitt, Armstead, Siliga, Jones, Vellano, Forston, Kerr
    LB (9):
    Mayo, Hightower, Collins, Bishop, White, Beauharnais, Fortt, Davis, Lokombo
    CB (9):
    Revis, Browner, Dennard, Ryan, Arrington, Green, Colvin, Williams, James
    S (6):
    McCourty, Harmon, Mikell, T. Wilson, Ebner, Davis
    ST (4)
    Gostkowski, Allen, Aiken, Heit

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