FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed 59% of his passes to wide receivers during the 2019 NFL regular season, which was his lowest mark since 2004. That shows the Patriots have some offseason work to do at receiver, but also that things aren't as bleak as they might appear.
How so? Let's take a look back to help us with the future.
The Patriots won the Super Bowl in that 2004 season. Brady, a fifth-year pro, wasn't the focal point of the offense; instead it was workhorse running back Corey Dillon, who totaled a single-season franchise record 1,635 rushing yards.
What stood out from the 2004 receiving corps, which included Super Bowl XXXIX Most Valuable Player Deion Branch, was the distribution of targets and diversity of skill sets among them. Branch was the quick-twitch, smooth route runner who could align in all spots. Veteran David Patten was more of the straight-line speed guy, although he was far from a one-trick pony. David Givens was the bigger, physical option. Troy Brown (backup slot) and Bethel Johnson (pure speed) provided depth.
They were all a little different, yet when the pieces fit together with the threat of a potent running game, it was a productive group that complemented each other well enough to win a Super Bowl. And Brady distributed the football at a fairly even level.
Givens, then in his third NFL season, led the team with 56 catches for 874 yards (15.6 avg.) and three touchdowns. Patten had 44 receptions for 800 yards (18.2 avg.) and seven touchdowns. Branch was next with 35 catches for 454 yards (13.0 avg.) and four touchdowns, and yet it was telling that in the most important game of the season -- the Super Bowl -- he was the top threat with 11 receptions for 133 yards.
Now fast forward to 2019.
When conducting an autopsy on the Patriots' wide receiving corps, it's really Football 101 to see where the issues lie, and ultimately, how those issues can best be fixed in 2020.
There's Julian Edelman with a team-high 100 catches and then ... keep looking ... keep looking ... keep looking.
The drop-off was extreme.
Part of the issues stem from injuries and players coming and going at different points of the season. But the distribution was so tilted, and the skill sets of receivers not diversified enough, that it made the Patriots easier to defend.
It is probably overstated at this point, but coach Bill Belichick's analysis from the 2009 NFL Films-produced "A Football Life" documentary applies. Belichick was sitting with his coaching staff in a meeting and lamenting how opponents could simply double-cover Wes Welker underneath, and then put a safety over the top on Randy Moss, and the Patriots were toast.
That was partly the Patriots in 2019, with all the attention on Edelman when it counted. The Patriots had limited speed to contend with on the outside, so defenses often collapsed on the interior part of the field, and not surprisingly, the Brady-led passing game never found a consistent rhythm.
Looking ahead, the Patriots know they can lock in Edelman (signed through 2021) and Harry (2022) to their receiving corps. Undrafted rookies Meyers and Gunner Olszewski are both signed through 2021 and their roles will be contingent on the growth they exhibit.
Dorsett is a free agent and the odds he returns seem low, while 2019 in-season acquisition Sanu -- who showed promise as an inside target when healthy (10 catches vs. Baltimore) -- is signed through next season and due to earn $6.5 million. The pure financials, and how the Patriots are projected to have about $30 million in salary-cap space and would save $6.5 million if they move on from Sanu, could spark an internal discussion on his future.
Regardless, the Patriots will benefit from adding another receiver who can run. Speed should be a priority to complement the shifty and crafty Edelman and big and physical Harry and (possibly) Sanu atop the depth chart.
In Super Bowl LIV, picture what Kansas City Chiefs rookie receiver Mecole Hardman (second round, Georgia) would look like in a Patriots uniform. He was one of the fastest players in the 2019 NFL draft, a player the Patriots took a long look at because he is a threat to score every time he has the football.
So as the disappointment of the Patriots' early playoff exit now shifts to a forward-looking focus, the picture is clear. There's work to be done at receiver, but it's far from an overhaul.
More diversity in skill set, and better distribution, is needed.