When the Patriots signed Panthers free agent wide receiver Brandon LaFell, I immediately thought of last season's pick-up of Donald Jones. It's a player who's had success against New England, who flashed a lot of potential, whose team didn't want to bring them back.
Bill Belichick saw an opportunity to use that same weapon that had been used against the Patriots and offered Jones a contract. Unfortunately, Jones was unable to perform due to health issues, but he was my initial basis point.
Jones signed a three-year deal for $4.155 million. LaFell signed for almost three times as much.
It was not a very good comparison.
So I had to jump into the tape to try and figure out why Belichick would hand out three years and $11 million (average of $3.67 million per season) for a player who had never broken 50 receptions or 800 yards in a single year. Why would Belichick want to hand out what would be the 13th highest cap hit on the roster to this guy?
Let's start with the numbers. For the past three seasons, LaFell has operated as the Panthers #3 receiving target, behind newly signed Raven wide receiver Steve Smith, and tight end Greg Olsen. Over those three years, he's picked up 217 targets, 129 receptions (59.4%), 1917 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Quarterback Cam Newton has thrown 10 interceptions in his direction.
None of those numbers are too impressive, but this 6'2, 210 lbs receiver is consistent. He's picked up 36-49 receptions, 613-677 yards, and 3-5 touchdowns over the past three seasons.
If you're looking for a potential #1 wide receiver, you're looking in the wrong place. If you're looking for the 2nd best target on your team, you're not going to find it here. But while his price tag seems high, it's still only the 40th highest receiver contract in the league; LaFell is getting paid to be a WR2.
Breaking down the Patriots roster, the current targets are tight end Rob Gronkowski, and wide receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Josh Boyce. Factor in another tight end in the draft and those are your targets. I feel comfortable placing Gronk, Edelman, Amendola, and Dobson ahead of LaFell, and letting the new signee challenge Thompkins and Boyce for roster space and playing time.
So why are the Patriots paying WR2 money to a player who is probably target #5 on the team?
1) Wide receivers aren't the only options in the passing game. In fact, 14 teams feature a tight end in their top 2 for receptions. So it's not too crazy to have your WR2 being the third target on your team. However, why is LaFell being paid if he's probably not higher than WR4?
2) The increased salary cap increased all of the prices. While I wouldn't put LaFell in the top 10 of free agent wide receivers, he was paid the going-rate. Andre Roberts signed for $4 million in a year to be target #3 in Washington. Emmanuel Sanders signed $5 million a year to be target #4 in Denver. Riley Cooper and/or Jeremy Maclin received $5-5.5 million from Philadelphia to fight to be Target #2. Loser will likely be Target #5.
So did the Patriots overpay for their position when on the open market? I wouldn't say they paid too much.
3) The Patriots needed a body and LaFell had some leverage. The Patriots were absolutely abysmal in the red zone and it was because they didn't have a big body up the middle of the field to make plays or draw coverage (read: Gronkowski, Robert). While the red zone passing numbers don't support LaFell, he does present a bigger frame than what the Patriots have on the roster. More of his red zone production will come later.
Add in the foot surgery to Aaron Dobson and you see how LaFell's party could force the Patriots into a little more money. The Patriots need help for camp and LaFell should be able to provide.
In the end, LaFell receiving WR2 money to be WR4 isn't too crazy. If his deal is truly meant to be a multi-year commitment, then the Patriots will benefit down the road, especially if the future of either Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman is in question for 2015 or beyond. As the cap increases and as rosters turnover, it's very possible that LaFell's contract will trend into "fair" territory.
LaFell's addition to the team isn't just about the money, though. It's about what he brings to the team and how he elevates the team in a new direction. I'm of the belief that premium additions on offense should add a new element to the team, instead of just adding layers to existing skills. For example, I believe that the Patriots handled the Edelman/Amendola contracts well this off-season; Edelman's skill set isn't too far different than Amendola's. As a result, the Patriots shouldn't go chasing after Edelman, if they have a comparable replacement already on hand.
For LaFell, we have to find out what element he adds. For this, I went to the tape and watched half of his 2013 season. Here's what I found:
According to Pro Football Focus, LaFell spent 63.0% of his time in the slot. This wasn't a one-time thing, as he spent 65.5% of his time in the slot in 2012. For comparison, former Patriot fling Emmanuel Sanders was in the slot for 67.0% of his 2012 snaps. In 2013, LaFell fell in between Edelman (49.% in the slot) and Amendola (77.4%).
The Panthers loved to use LaFell in motion and even flexed him in-and-out of their backfield. He wasn't so much of a jackknife, as he was a chess piece. They used his size inside as a formidable blocker, and they had him run his routes with a free release.
What's the point in another slot receiver? LaFell runs routes that Edelman and Amendola can't provide. LaFell can't run the crossers into traffic that Edelman and Amendola provide. He doesn't have the lateral quickness to gain separation.
What he does provide is a large body for out routes, which Tom Brady loves to throw. All of last season you could see Brady's out routes were off-target, usually an arm's length away from his receivers. LaFell can be a bigger target to box out the defenders that would engulf the smaller slot players.
He also is a seam threat. Belichick sends his slot receivers down the field for roughly 10% of their targets. While that's a nice play to catch defenders unaware, Edelman and Amendola just aren't large enough targets to warrant the chances. LaFell, on the other hand, was sent deep 25% of the time with the Panthers. He displayed an ability to attack the secondary and freeze the safety- if not for himself, then for the other receivers to gain some additional wiggle room.
We also have to keep in mind that Brady isn't a deep ball thrower. His excellence comes from making quick plays on quick decisions to get his receivers into the open field with an opportunity for yards after the catch. Having players capable of playing inside-and-out (like Edelman and Amendola), affords Brady a wide variety of options and plays he can flex to attack a defense.
LaFell isn't a physically imposing receiver, with an average 4.58 40 and an average 9'7 broad jump. He possesses an elite three cone of 6.81, surprise surprise, and it shows when he stems his routes. While LaFell doesn't generate much separation underneath in crossing patterns, he shows tremendous ability to get open down the field, similar to Aaron Dobson.
LaFell is smooth out of his breaks and attacks the open field to gain separation. What he lacks in physical ability, he makes up with technique. Technique is predictable. It's able to be harnessed. Brady loves technique. Instead of players freelancing and trying to get free, Brady can use LaFell's skill set to draw plays to deliver the ball to LaFell as soon as he's free.
As often as LaFell was open in Carolina, he didn't always receive the ball. He would draw the deep safety to open up lanes underneath for tight end Greg Olsen. He would be a downfield blocker for scrambles and for outlet throws. He usually would keep his head up to try and help a teammate squeeze another yard or two out of the play.
But seeing why LaFell didn't receive the ball leads to both a positive and a potential negative.
A potential negative was seeing LaFell facing zone defenses. The Panthers offense operates around Cam Newton's natural abilities, and one of his biggest skills is his ability to scramble and run. Against zone defenses, receivers typically try and attack a weak spot in the zone where the quarterback can deliver the ball. However, Newton's legs allows the receivers to improvise a little bit as he manufactures more time for them.
Receivers don't sit in zones because Newton doesn't let them. They need to keep moving as his legs will force defenders to continuously move the weak points in the zone. The potential negative is that LaFell hasn't really had an opportunity to attack zones in the NFL in a traditional sense. Can he learn? Time will tell.
A positive, which is head scratching, is LaFell's utilization in the red zone. He saw 9 targets, with 5 receptions (55.5%) and 4 touchdowns (comparison: Sanders was 16/9/56.3%/5). That's middle of the road.
But I talked about his separation down the field. That applies in the red zone:
Two consecutive plays in the red zone. Two times LaFell is effectively wide open for an easy touchdown. This wasn't just a one time thing, but an occurrence in multiple games. The separation out of his breaks is especially on display between the 20s, but it's of obvious use in the red zone.
Now there are some weak spots in LaFell's game. He's not sudden in short space, which allows him to be removed in single coverage in the short game. He loses concentration when he knows he's going to be hit. He's inexperienced against zone coverage. He's not aggressive when attacking the ball in the air.
People will point to his drop rate this past season, which was an Aaron Dobson-esque 14.0%, but I believe it's a possible outlier as his prior two seasons were 6.38% and 5.26%.
LaFell isn't with the Patriots to be a WR2, even if he's getting paid like one. He's here to challenge Kenbrell Thompkins for playing time- and in my opinion LaFell will win- and he's going to provide size, routes, and ability in the slot that neither Edelman nor Amendola can provide. He'll be a body in the red zone and he'll drive the safety back to open up lanes underneath for the other receivers.
He'll be a body until Dobson is healthy enough to take the field. LaFell is a strong veteran WR4, with WR3 potential, that Brady will be glad to have on the field. He may not be what we had in mind, but he's what came in the Patriots price range and desired multi-year time frame.
Within the context of the Patriots roster make-up, this isn't a move that will cause the team to win games- but LaFell is a player with whom that the Patriots can absolutely win.