Here's a not-so-fun fact: over the past three seasons, there are only five Patriots receivers taller than 6'1 to catch 5 or more passes from Tom Brady. Three of them are tight ends (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Michael Hoomanawanui). The other two? Aaron Dobson and Chad Johnson.
The addition of wide receiver Brandon LaFell shouldn't be overlooked when it comes to improving the Patriots offense in 2014. At 6'2, LaFell is the second tallest wide receiver to likely make the team and represents a quality red zone complement to Dobson (as well as the 6'0 1/2 Kenbrell Thompkins).
The key focus of improvement should be in the red zone, where the Patriots ranked 27th in the league in converting drives that finished inside the 15 yard line (my arbitrary benchmark for a quarterback throwing accurately into the end zone) into touchdowns. Brady and the offense was only able to convert 57% of their drives inside the 15 yard line into touchdowns, ranking with the Jets (58%), Giants (58%), Vikings (56%), Ravens (55%), Packers (52%), Bills (51%), and Jaguars (49%).
For a team that was 5th in the league in their percentage of drives ending inside the 15, their inability to punch the ball into the end zone is clear reason for concern. Those are points left on the field and those are points that could have been the difference between homefield advantage for the playoffs and traveling to Denver for the championship game.
So why is LaFell so important? I ran a regression for all receivers (tight ends and running backs included) who received 10 or more targets in the red zone (per Pro Football Reference) and compared the relationship between height and; 1) completion percentage; 2) touchdowns per attempt.
What we find is a negative correlation between height and completion rate; this means that shorter receivers are more likely to have high completion percentages in the red zone. This makes sense due to the standard stature of slot receivers and running backs who are placed in high percentage situations to catch the ball. The issue comes with converting those situations into points.
We also see a fairly strong correlation between height and the rate of touchdowns per attempt- and of the seventeen players who have converted 40% or more of their pass attempts into touchdowns over the past three seasons, fifteen are 6'1 or taller (Kenbrell Thompkins is the only active exception; the other being the retired Packers wide receiver Donald Driver).
All this leads to a fairly basic strategy: Throw to your shorter players if you want to move the ball to the end zone. Throw to your taller players if you want to get in the end zone.
The issue the Patriots had last season was the distinct lack of players tall enough to enforce their will in the end zone. The return of Rob Gronkowski will do wonders in finishing drives. So will the continued development of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. The addition of LaFell will give the Patriots yet another target in the red zone to improve upon their 27th position.
Hopefully all of this pays off when the season starts. Or if all else fails, they can just chuck the ball to 6'8 Justin Jones.