Pats are prepared for loss of Edelman because they've been preparing for loss of Edelman

Published: 9/6/2017 11:04:30 PM
Modified: 11/12/2008 3:10:12 PM
IMG_6003-JPG.jpegChris Hogan is a potential Plan B for Julian Edelman.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A Patriots training camp that began with spirited predictions of perfect dominance ended with the sober reality that anterior cruciate ligaments could be New England’s Achilles heel in 2017.
Three Patriots saw their seasons end before they began as rookie defensive end Derek Rivers, cornerback and punt returner Cyrus Jones and wide receiver Julian Edelman all tore ACLs during camp. The loss of Edelman, a Super Bowl hero and a sub-Brady-level hub of New England’s offense would appear to be particularly devastating.
Then again, the Patriots may yet be prepared to deal with the loss of Julian Edelman, because they've spent the last two seasons preparing to deal with the loss of Julian Edelman.
As the Patriots hoist their fifth Super Bowl banner and open their 2017 campaign on Thursday night against Kansas City, they do so with a revised roster that’s been built to absorb the loss of vital personnel.
Some NFL pundits saw the Patriots’ offseason moves as a signal that Bill Belichick is trying to maximize Tom Brady’s championship window and notch a few more Lombardi Trophies while he can. Given that Brady is 40, that window could close at any time. Given that Brady is Brady, that window may remain open until windows themselves are obsolete. However, another explanation for why the Pats dealt a first-round pick to nab burner Brandin Cooks from the Saints, has nothing to do with Brady. It has to do with Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
It would seem that when Edelman and Gronk were injured at various times during the 2015 season, Belichick realized that his offense was largely reliant on three players — Brady (now 40), Edelman (now 31) and Gronk (now 28), whose injury history is itself an orthopedic textbook. When Gronk and Edelman went down in 2015, the Patriots struggled to create the matchup problems their offense depends on. This was a two-pronged problem. Not only had the Pats lost exceptionally talented players, they also lacked reserves with the talents to run their scheme.
Last week, Belichick said a key concern in roster building is staffing the proper personnel to execute the schemes a team will want to run in the future.
“Those are the hard decisions in coaching, is trying to anticipate what you’re going to need and trying to make sure you have it,” Belichick said. “And not only have it, but can actually do it. If you can’t execute it, then it doesn’t make any difference what you have. You’ve got to be able to do it.”
The Patriots are so invested in an offense that exploits matchup problems, that it’s not easy walk away from it (particularly when injuries occur in-game). After 2015, it was evident they needed to staff alternatives to their best skill players who can also run the schemes New England needs to run. In 2016, Belichick and the front office started to bolster depth around Edelman and Gronk. The Patriots certainly couldn’t replace their talents, but they could create next-best options.
The best example is the one-year contribution of Martellus Bennett. While Bennett lacks the uncanny speed Gronk brings to the tight end position, his size and athleticism allowed New England to create desired mismatches with opposing defenses. When Gronk went down midway through last season, the Greater Boston region feared 2016 might be lost. Nonetheless, Bennett, his nominal replacement, made important contributions throughout the remainder of the year and drew a pass interference penalty that set up the game-winning score in Super Bowl LI. The Pats continued to succeed because they had created a successful Plan B. Before Bennett left via free agency, the Pats added another big, Plan B tight end in Dwayne Allen.
Looking to create a similar Plan B for Edelman, the Pats reworked the wide receiver group after 2015. Brandon LaFell left via free agency and the team cut bait on former second-round pick Aaron Dobson. They brought in Chris Hogan, a converted lacrosse player who finished second in the league in yards per reception with 17.9 (a hair behind DeSean Jackson). They also drafted Malcolm Mitchell in the fourth round. Despite injury issues, Mitchell had one of the best rookie seasons a wide receiver has had in the Belcihick era (32 catches, 401 yards, four touchdowns).
This year, they gave up their first-round pick for Cooks and dealt third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett to the Colts for former first-round pick Phillip Dorsett. A currently healthy Danny Amendola is still in the mix. With Edelman sidelined, the Patriots can now turn to Amendola as Plan B in the slot position without losing steam at the wideouts. Perhaps more intriguing, slot duties could also fall to Hogan. No longer required to stretch the field with Cooks filling that role, Hogan could be Plan B in the slot.
Speaking of Cooks, the Dorsett trade may very well be a sign that the Patriots are planning to build a future around the vertical passing game. Why? Because while Dorsett isn’t as talented as Cooks, his speed can create similar match-up problems. He’s a Plan B for Cooks. In other words, the Patriots didn’t bring in Cooks in to win now and maximize Brady’s window. They brought in Cooks hoping that he can help them win for some time to come. The test of this theory will be whether the Pats extend Cooks beyond his rookie contract (which ends in 2018).
Regardless of how the Patriots deploy their weapons, what’s important is that they now have deeper position groups that can shoulder the loss of Edelman and, if necessary, present a credible fallback if Gronk suffers another injury. As Belichick put it, you have to acquire players who can fit in through a number of contingencies.  
“I think you always have to be ready to go with what you've got,” Belichick said. “I mean, you can’t ever count on you're going to get somebody who's not here, get them off the street or get them from another team. They may not be available. If that option comes up then I think you look at the player and say, ‘OK, how would we use him? How would he fit in? What would his role be? What's the cost?’ And so forth, and you make that decision on an individual basis based on that player, his situation and your team needs, whether it be short or long term, whatever you happen to be looking at.” 
Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.

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