Let's preface this article by saying that Josh McDaniels would take advantage of the talent that presents itself on the roster. Just because he has certain tendencies, it does not mean that he can't adjust. But I will say there is a fair chance that McDaniels is adjusting the Patriots offense to fit his standards.
2011 marked the high point of the Patriots two-tight end offense where Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez paired to produce 32.5% of the Patriots yards from scrimmage. In 2012, McDaniels returned to the Patriots after getting cut from the Denver Broncos and spending a season with the St. Louis Rams. Had Aaron Hernandez been a part of the team in 2013, you could be certain that McDaniels would have utilized his abilities.
However, with Hernandez off the team, the Patriots had to retool their offense and this is where McDaniels' influence comes into play.
Instead of actively pursuing a replacement tight end, the Patriots opted to operate in a wide-receiver heavy offense, a situation worsened with the loss of Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots had the opportunity to dip back into the tight end well this off-season, but instead decided to try out rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson, both of whom were released this past weekend. In their place, the Patriots have brought on Steve Maneri and Ben Hartsock, both of whom are not threats in the receiving game, but are considered excellent blockers.
We can point to a potential return to a power-run game to complement the Patriots wide receiver-heavy offense, a throwback to the early part of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, or even a nod to how the Broncos handled the close of John Elway's career. We could also look and see that Josh McDaniels doesn't use tight ends as heavily in his offense- and that this is the team adjusting to his playbook.
McDaniels has had an influence on offensive playcalling since 2006 and through his stops in Denver and St. Louis. We can see the utilization of tight ends, running backs, and wide receivers throughout his career. I've combined running backs and fullbacks into the same group since fullbacks have had a small role and over 93% of their touches have been rushing attempts.
Over the eight years of play calling, we find a fairly consistent output.
Running backs have accounted for 41.3% of the offensive yards from scrimmage and 63.3% of offensive touches. You'll note how little variance exists at this position, and we can feel pretty comfortable that the running backs of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, James White, James Develin, and (maybe) Brandon Bolden will account for nearly two-thirds of the offensive touches and roughly 41% of the yardage.
If the past two seasons have been much indication, the receiving backs (Vereen, White) will receive roughly 50% the amount of touches as the lead running back (Ridley), although the yardage splits for the receiving backs will be roughly 75%.
Wide receivers have seen a similar level of consistency (which means that we'll see more of the same with tight ends). Roughly 30% of the touches will go to the wide receivers, as will 45-50% of the yards from scrimmage. You'll note that receiver heavy offenses will trend towards 60% of the yards from scrimmage, which wouldn't surprise me for this upcoming season.
McDaniels has historically favored his receivers, and with some quick addition you can see that over 90% of the offensive output will go through the wide receivers and the running backs.
With the tight ends, we find a less-than-involved 11.3% of the yards and 7.2% of the touches, nearly in line with last season's output. Of course, hopefully the 2014 offense will feature a healthier Rob Gronkowski, which should point the needle north to possibly the 15% range. But even as the 2006 offense with Ben Watson and Daniel Graham posted a large offensive share, near the region of the 2012 offense, you'll note that the '06 and '12 offenses both had premier tight end talents. Two first round picks in '06, two of the best tight ends in the league in '12.
2014 doesn't offer that talent.
Just like in 2007, when the Patriots had the chance to remodel the offense to the high octane power it displayed, McDaniels and the 2014 offense is copying a similar model; moving away from the tight ends and towards the receivers.
Still, it's hard to predict this Patriots offense. I feel comfortable saying the running backs will be responsible for 40% of the yards and 60% of the touches because the running back position group is the most consistent under McDaniels.
Looking at receiving, if Gronkowski has a 10% touch and 15% yardage involvement, it would project him to roughly 80 receptions and 1,100 receiving yards, which seems more-than-reasonable. However, if that's the case, then the wide receivers would take a smaller slice of the offense with 30% of the touches and 45% of the yards, below McDaniels' career average as well as exactly in line with last season's output. However, these numbers would be above the roughly 33-35% of the offense that the wide receivers comprised in 2010 and 2011.
Effectively, Gronk's increase in output comes at the expense of the running game. The offense won't come near the tight end utilization of 2011 and 2012, but should easily exceed 2013's usage. It seems likely that the Patriots will feature wide receivers in their offense, due to lack of depth at tight end, although hopefully good health will prevent them from being the focal point.
Just because McDaniels will be moving away from tight ends, doesn't mean that Gronk won't be utilized; it just means that the production the Patriots used to have from the role will be shifted back to the wide receivers.