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Sophomore Surge?

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How big a jump can we reasonably expect?

Jim Rogash

It's no secret that most of Tom Brady's trusted receivers left last year.  Welker left for Fivehead-land, Woodhead left for the left coast, Hernandez left for cozy little cell, Branch left for early retirement (before un-retiring at the end of the year), and Lloyd left to make zombie movies.  So 362 out of Brady's 402 completions from 2012 (90%) we're to players no longer on the roster. Brady still had Gronk albeit for only 7 games, Hooman who he had only targeted 7 times in 2012, Vereen who Tom targeted only 13 times in 2012, and Edelman who Brady targeted 32 times in 2012.  In short Brady targeted Gronk more in 7 games in 2013, than he did all of his remaining receivers in 2012.

The non-Gronk players that remained were untried and untested.  Added to the mix was the oft-injured Danny Amendola, and the Patriots had an offense that lacked chemistry.  How did the Patriots respond?  They drafted Aaron Dobson in the 2nd, Josh Boyce in the 5th and picked up UDFA Kenbrell Thompkins to add even more instability to an already volatile mix.  The results? Twelve wins, 4 losses, and the second seed in the AFC.  No wonder people hate the Patriots!  Now some fans are screaming that if we don't get Andre Johnson, we're doomed.  Pull-ease!

With a year under their collective belts, we're hoping that last year's rookies can have a bit more impact this year.  Is it possible they do worse?  Yes, and here's why: game film.  Teams now have rolls and rolls of film on these guys, and if they don't improve their games, their weaknesses are out there for everyone to see.  Is it reasonable that they could improve?  Yes, and here's why: familiarity with the offense, and increased confidence, and game film.

This time, the game film is in the hands of our secondary.  Guys like McCourty, Browner and Revis, who will take our receivers to task for rounding corners, lack of double moves, and giving away the route.  This training camp is going to be a crucible for our receivers.  They will either be refined in the fire or burned up.  We'll find out which by the time the 53 man roster is published .

So assuming they will improve, how much improvement can we expect?  Let's look at last year on a per game basis.  Aaron Dobson played 12 games and was targeted 6 times per game.  He had an appalling catch rate of 51%.  He fumble once and had a TD for every three games he played.  His 14 yards per attempt and 5.6 YAC are both fairly decent, so we'll leave those alone for now.

recent article showed that 2nd year receivers averaged 0.92 additional targets per game over their rookie seasons.  There are a couple caveats that I'm going to ignore, because I'm looking more at a reasonable ceiling for production.  So 6.92 targets per game seems like the way to go.  In addition, I'd expect his catch rate to increase a bit, but it's not like you'll see huge jumps like up to 75% or anything.  Solid deep threats tend to hang out around the 60% mark as the connection is a difficult one. The Brady-Moss connection was only 60.9%, so 60% seems like a reasonable ceiling.

Josh Boyce's 2012 stat line was only 2.1 targets per games with an abysmal 47% catch rate.  His 13.4 yards per touch and 8.9 YAC are both outstanding as he was targeted in the same area where Amendola and Edelman were.  He has the same guys ahead of him on the depth chart so there's really no reason to assume he'll be used more than the 0.92 extra target we gave Dobson.  I will average out his catch rate though between a decent slot guy (at 70%) and a decent deep guy (at 60%), so a 65% catch rate for him.

Kenbrell Thompkins was used pretty heavily in early 2012 and waned a bit late.  He averaged 5.83 targets per game with what seems to be a rookie trend 45.7% catch rate.  He had one TD for every 3 games.  His 14.6 yards per touch and 4.5 YAC are also reasonable for where he plays on the field.  It's possible that LaFell eats into some of his increase, but we'll pretend the defense keeps the offense on the field so long, there will be plenty of balls to go around.  It's also reasonable to assume a catch rate of somewhere around 60%.

That points toward something like:

Aaron Dobson (16 g):  67 catches (111 targets) for 938 yards (long 81), 7TDs

Josh Boyce (16 g): 31 catches (48 targets) for 415 yards (long 41), 2 TD (both outside the 20)

Kebrell Thompkins (16 g) 65 catches (108 targets) for 949 yards (49 long), 8 TDs

Overall, I think this would be fantastic production from our second year players.  How realistic is it?  Dobson is still sidelined as of now, but it sounds like both Boyce and Thompkins have shown up well in mini-camp and OTAs.  Unfortunately, Boyce may be sitting behind both Edelman and Amendola for reps, and Thompkins may be behind LaFell and Dobson once he returns.  With that said, there is no powerhouse TE behind Gronk, and unless McD decides to go with a 2 RB backfield all of the time, we will likely target our receivers as much as last year or more if our offense can stay on the field longer.

I think both Thompkin's and Dobson's estimates may be a little high.  Dobson because he might not start right away, and Thompkins because we still have LaFell waiting in the wings.  Boyce may actually exceed these numbers if he can build some trust with Brady.  He has decent slot quickness, but can threaten deeper down the field than either Edelman or Amendola.  He's a talent that could start to steal reps from the more established receivers if he can just run the right routes and hang onto the ball better.

So how do you think our sophomores will do?