Wide receiver Julian Edelman is a big missing piece; his absence forces the Patriots to throw the ball deeper more frequently than they would typically like and New England clearly misses his presence on the mid-distance throws.
Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is another missing piece. No Patriots player saw more red zone targets or receptions than Mitchell after the team’s bye week and that includes two games where Mitchell didn’t play due to an injury.
And then there’s tight end Martellus Bennett, who didn’t get enough credit for his ability to generate separation from coverage. In fact, according to Next Gen Stats, Bennett had the most separation from the defense at the time of the quarterback’s release in the entire NFL.
That’s right, there was no player better at getting separation than Marty Bennett.
This year has been much different for the Patriots, according to Next Gen Stats’ Matt Harmon. New England receivers generated the 4th-least amount of separation at the time of Tom Brady throwing the football, which certainly doesn’t give Brady a large window of opportunity.
In 2016, Bennett had an average of 3.8 yards of separation from the coverage. Chris Hogan had 3.2 yards of separation, which Brady clearly missed over the second half of the season when Hogan was sidelined. Edelman had 2.7 yards of separation and Mitchell had 2.6 yards of separation.
In 2017, Danny Amendola leads the Patriots with 2.9 yards of separation, while Brandin Cooks has 2.6 yards of separation and Rob Gronkowski has 2.3 yards of separation. That’s not a recipe for a thriving passing offense. Hogan averaged 2.7 yards of separation, so his return should help the rest of the offense gain more space.
Oh, and Bennett averaged 3.1 yards of separation in his limited time on the field in 2017, so he still has that magic and would have been a nice piece for the offense.
Part of the reason for the lack of separation by the Patriots receivers is the strategy of the opposing defense. Gronkowski receives just 4.6 yards of cushion at the snap, which is the 4th-lowest amount of space in the NFL, right up there with Marvin Jones (4.2), Antonio Brown (4.3), Amari Coopers (4.5), and DeAndre Hopkins (4.6). Cooks has just 5.2 yards of cushion.
Teams are using press coverage on the Patriots to try and force Brady to hold on to the football and to throw it deep. Since there aren’t any receivers capable of generating that quick, short-range separation, New England has resorted to the home run offense with deep shots to Cooks and Hogan and Phillip Dorsett.
In comparison, last year Hogan and Mitchell received 5.4 yards of cushion at the snap and that was the lowest of qualifying receivers on the team- they received more space than Cooks. Edelman received a whopping 6.6 yards of cushion at the snap, the 20th most in the league.
And last year, both Cooks and Dorsett received more space at the snap, too, with matching 7.1 yards of cushion. Teams have made the active decision to cover these players differently in 2017.
The return of Chris Hogan should provide an incredible boost for the New England offense because of “gravity.” This is a term used in the NBA to describe players that draw extra attention from the opposing team, leaving others more open, and it also applies to the NFL.
For example, Rob Gronkowski might have the strongest gravity in the league as teams dedicate enormous defensive resources to covering him. But if the defense covers Gronkowski with both a chipping defensive lineman, a linebacker at the second level, and a safety past the sticks, then Gronkowski drew the attention of three players away from potentially affecting other players on the field.
As a result, Cooks might be a little more open because the safety is distracted, or Brady might have a little more time in the pocket because the pass rush wasn’t as direct.
So the return of Hogan, who is no longer on the injury report, should provide more balance to the gravity of the Patriots offense because he should draw more attention from defenders than Phillip Dorsett did in his stead- and that means either Hogan will be more open or Gronkowski and Cooks will have more opportunities. And that will be a great change for Tom Brady and his production.