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Patriots one of four teams focusing on yards after the catch and TE Martellus Bennett is a perfect fit

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Bill Belichick is zigging while everyone else is zagging. Make sure you take notes.

The New England Patriots passing offense is lauded for its ability to generate yards after the catch. Over the years, players like WR Wes Welker, WR Julian Edelman, and TE Rob Gronkowski have shown a penchant for moving the chains and the reliance on yards after the catch has increased.

As the Patriots offensive line has deteriorated, QB Tom Brady has been forced to get rid of the ball more quickly and receivers have been forced to pick up more yards after the catch in order to retain offensive efficiency. Brady also put the team on his back in 2013 when he lined up with rookies like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins.

Over the past three seasons, the ratio of yards after the catch (YAC) versus yards before the catch (YBC) on passed to wide receivers and tight ends has fallen from 0.609 to 0.598 to a shocking 0.551. This means that teams are relying on quarterbacks to get the ball down the field more than receivers are picking up yards after the catch.

Interestingly enough, the Patriots increased reliance on yards after the catch is in the absolute opposite direction of league trends. The Patriots are one of four teams, along with the Lions, Eagles, and Giants, to see their YAC/YBC ratio increase in each of the past three seasons.

On the other side of the spectrum, teams like the Vikings, Seahawks, Steelers, Colts, Falcons, Jaguars, and Washington are relying more on their quarterbacks to get the ball down the field.

Typically, slot receivers and tight ends are asked to pick up the YAC with players like Chiefs TE Travis Kelce, new Patriots TE Martellus Bennett, Washington TE Jordan Reed, Packers WR Randall Cobb, and Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry all earning more yards after the catch than before it. These positions are integral to the Patriots offense.

While the Patriots are gaining more yards after the catch than before it, something curious has happened: both Edelman and Gronkowski are making plays further down the field.

Edelman’s YAC has increased from 4.76 to 4.89 to 5.33 and Gronkowski’s has risen from 5.38 to 5.87 to 7.63. Over the same time frame Edelman’s YBC has also increased, from 5.30 to 5.67 to 6.02, while Gronk’s jumped from 7.84 to 8.71 the past two seasons.

The outside receivers have seen a similar change in YAC, but the YBC has gone a different direction. The combination of Thompkins and Dobson, along with Brandon LaFell have seen their YAC increase from 5.07 to 5.16 to 6.68, but the YBC has fallen from 9.20 to 7.72 to 7.24.

Danny Amendola’s YPC and YBC have decreased as the Patriots rely on his routes to open up pockets for players up the seams.

This paints an interesting picture of the evolution of the New England offense.

While the Patriots are attacking the deeper areas of the middle of the field, they are focusing on sideline passes closer to the line of scrimmage. This maximizes Brady’s skill set as a QB, allowing him to throw lower-risk passes and to avoid less efficient deep sideline passes.

The addition of TE Martellus Bennett and WR Chris Hogan add more variables into the offense.

Over the past three seasons, Bennett’s YAC/YBC ratio has been 0.99, 1.09, and 1.13. His YAC has fallen from 6.20 to 5.31 to 4.11, while his YBC has also fallen from 5.48 to 4.87 to 4.17. He has been on the exact opposite trajectory compared to the Patriots offensive usage.

Still, the Patriots haven’t had a receiver or tight end (min. 32 catches) with such a reliance on YAC over the past three years. 2015 LaFell’s 0.92 and 2013 Edelman’s 0.90 are the closest to Bennett’s ratio.

Hogan, on the other hand, has experienced vastly different offenses in the past two seasons. In 2014, Hogan and Edelman were practically identical in their production, with Edelman making plays slightly further down the field and at a much higher volume.

In 2015, Bills QB Tyrod Taylor opened up the attack and Hogan’s YBC jumped from 5.59 to 9.47, an increase of almost 4 yards deeper down the field. Conversely, Hogan’s YAC dropped from 4.80 to 3.03.

Unlike Bennett’s high YAC rate, 2015 Hogan’s YAC/YBC ratio of 0.32 would have been the lowest of any Patriots receiver over the past three seasons. The closest would have been 2013 Thompkins at 0.44 or 2013 Gronkowski at 0.55.

Both Hogan and Bennett have the ability to generate yards after the catch, so they will fit well in the Patriots offense. Bennett will hopefully reverse his decline in production, while Hogan can fit into the offense in multiple ways.

His 2015 season is similar to the Patriots usage of Dobson and Thompkins in 2013, while his 2014 season compares well to Edelman and Amendola over the past couple of seasons. That versatility will earn him time on the field.

I’m interested to see if the Patriots continue their reliance on YAC, or if that trend was purely the result of a bad offensive line. If the line improves- which isn’t a high bar to expect- then perhaps Brady will be able to take advantage of plays down the field.

Or, alternatively, perhaps the lack of a “deep threat” shrunk the field for the Patriots and presence and athletic ability of Hogan will result in more successful passes down the field.

I think the overall league trend implies that the NFL has run through its slot receiver phase in favor of athletic tight ends. It makes sense because tight ends offer a greater mismatch against defenders due to their size and their theoretical blocking ability.

But don’t be surprised if we see the Patriots investing in more slot receivers in the coming years and their price depreciates. Head coach Bill Belichick loves a bargain- and he’s in charge of one of the few teams paying attention.