Wide receiver Brandon Tate is entering his third season with the Patriots and he has a lot to prove. He spent the majority of his rookie season injured and learning the playbook and he started off his sophomore year at a torrid pace. However, the trade of Randy Moss left Tate facing tighter coverages and his production dropped for the remainder of the season. I've been one of those people who've been quick to dismiss Tate. Prior to last season, I was talking about how Tate would drop to #4 on the receiver depth chart by the end of the season after then-rookie Taylor Price would have had enough time to emerge.
Yeah. That happened.
Still, I haven't been one to give Tate much of a chance. I've dismissed his abilities as a receiver and I've pinned him as a one trick pony. However, I'd like to take this time to say that watching game tape can change minds. In particular, watch this game tape. It's a fantastic compilation of all of Tate's contributions throughout the season and I was very surprised by what I was watching.
There's no doubt that Tate's production decreased after Moss was shipped away. After watching the tape, though, I'd like to propose a few reasons why Tate's production decreased, and why we may see his statistics increase over the next couple of seasons.
The first thing you realize when you watch Tate at the beginning of the 2010 season is how limited his playbook is in comparison to the rest of the offense. Tate was running hitch routes and slants. He wasn't running deep (that was all Randy) and he definitely wasn't running anything particularly fancy. At times, Tate would run five or ten yards, turn around, and catch the ball from Tom Brady. The rest of the time, Tate would run slants across the field, catch the ball with space in front of him, and pick up some pretty YAC. Tate was producing and he was doing extremely well.
However, once Moss was traded away and Deion Branch was brought back, Tate was no longer running the same routes as he was during the beginning of the season. In fact, when you think of it, Branch took over Tate's job. Think of all of Branch's receptions after his return- I bet you're all thinking of Branch running a outside hitch route. Or maybe you're thinking of Branch running a hitch in between the safety and the corner. Or maybe you're thinking of Branch catching the ball on a quick snap, only to fall to the ground after the first down after making the play. Those were Branch's typical plays.
Watch the video. Those plays were run to perfection by Tate during the beginning of the season. The only difference was that Tate had a dangerous slant route in his repertoire. The return of Branch pushed Tate out of a job and into the newly vacated role of "deep threat".
When I think of the 2010 season and Tate running a deep route, I think, "not a chance." Tate was never going to come down with those bombs. I was all too willing to put the blame on Tate because, hey, those bombs worked with Moss, how come they didn't work with Tate? In reality, that could be the reason why the deep passes weren't successful- Tate is not Moss.
Brady and Moss had an obscene connection and you knew that any ball thrown up had a high chance of coming down in Moss' hands. Brady and Tate need that connection on the deep pass. Re-watching the tape shows that the misfires weren't all Tate's fault. In fact, perhaps most of the blame actually rests with Brady. Every time Tate would go deep, Brady would throw extremely off target. Brady would underthrow the ball and he wouldn't throw the ball far enough ahead of Tate, so that Tate would be forced to make a last second adjustment and the defender would be back in position. Other times, Brady threw the ball so far ahead of Tate that Usain Bolt wouldn't have a chance of being in position. A lot of the times that Brady would throw the ball, Tate would be open at the release. However,poor ball placement allowed defenders back into the play, or took Tate out of the play completely.
That's not to say that Tate was never at fault. He dropped an easy pass into the chest against the Detroit Lions and he let a ball hit the ground against the Steelers. However, most of the missed deep passes were a result of a poor connection between the quarterback and the receiver.
So where does Tate go from here? Clearly Tate can work with Tom this off-season to help Brady learn Tate's speed and body control in order to be a more accurate duo. However, there are some adjustments that must be made by Tate, as well as by Coach Bill Belichick.
First off, Tate has a lot of room for improvement in his game. The most glaring needs, if Tate is to be used as a deep threat, are for Tate to learn how to sell the fake and how to make a cut. When Tate runs down the field, the cornerback is squared up in front of him with a cushion. Tate's job is to make a move to force the defender out of position and then cut into the open field. Tate is too much of a strider to sell a fake as of right now; when he tries to fake out a defender he moves his shoulders, but his torso doesn't vary from his path. It's not very difficult for a defender to read. If Tate can learn how to manage his footwork to maintain his speed, while also utilizing his body to move defenders, he will have a lot more open field and Brady will have a much easier target.
Making a cut is different, but not separate. Tate is solid at the hitch route. However, much like how Tate struggles to sell the fake, he struggles to make a sharp cut to throw a defender off. He rounds his routes which allows more savvy defenders to stay in position and prevent a big play down the field. Should Tate combine both an improved fake with an improved cut, his ability as a deep threat will greatly increase because of his fantastic speed.
However, these improvements all treat Tate as if he's going to be utilized as a DeSean Jackson or a Mike Wallace. These players are primarily used on "Go" routes and their job is to get down the field as quickly as possible so their big-armed quarterback can chuck the ball down the field. Well, the Patriots' problem is that for how strong and accurate Brady's arm is in the short and middle game, it is not the consistent cannon needed to make those deep plays down after down.
So I propose an alternative utilization of Brandon Tate: Santonio Holmes.
See, when Moss was on the roster and Tate was used on crossing patterns and hitch routes, he was excellent. Hitch routes show that Tate has great hands and potential for body control. Crossing routes allow Tate to catch the ball with open field in front of him so he can use his speed to pick up extra yardage. Tate in the open field is dangerous, regardless of the level of the field, and in the Patriots "death by smurfs" offense, perhaps reeling in Tate to be a more consistent performer could benefit the team.
Holmes has been used in a similar way. He's rough the same size as Tate (Tate's an inch or two taller, depending on the source) and they have very similar speeds and quickness. However, Holmes plays more of a hybrid slot/#2 outside role in the offense, where he can use his speed to get down the field, but he's also able to perform in the slot and streak across the field. Tate should play a similar role for the Patriots.
Let Tate get the ball as quickly as possible and create his own yards. Allow him to bring the defense in, and then let him run down the field. If he improves his fakes and cuts, he can move the defense at will. Tate is an extremely dangerous weapon that is just waiting to be utilized correctly. Instead of forcing Tate into a role where his talents aren't maximized, allow him to play a role where he can get the ball in his hands and he'll make his own yards.
The difficulty arises when looking at the personnel on the Patriots. On the outside, Branch is still Branch and he's able to produce on the same routes that Tate thrives on. In the slot, Wes Welker is not going to go anywhere anytime soon. The addition of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as big mismatches down the field make it even more difficult for Tate to carve out a niche role in the offense. Add in Price as competition and Tate is in a battle just for time on the field.
Therefore, I propose the following utilization of Brandon Tate:
When Deion Branch is on the field, Brandon Tate will be on the outside, running slants and go routes.
When Deion Branch is off the field, Brandon Tate will be on the outside, running slants and hitch routes.
When Wes Welker is off the field, Brandon Tate will be in the slot, running slants and out routes.
These routes allow Tate to see time on the field, while also complementing the other players. Tate should always have the ability to run a slant route because giving Tate the ball quickly with open space will always generate additional yardage. The other routes allow Tate to take over the field and use his hands to create the plays.
I have high hopes for Tate this upcoming season; I wouldn't be surprised if he developed into a 700+ yard receiver. Should Tate continue to improve his game, and should Belichick use Tate to maximize his skill set, Tate should continue to produce and become a consistent performer in the Patriots' offense.