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Patriots’ deep passing game worked well in 2018, but faces big questions heading into 2019

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New England has lost some considerable deep-field production this offseason.

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

One of the most common misconceptions spread by those who just won’t accept Tom Brady’s status as the greatest quarterback of all time surrounds his deep passing. Chances are you have heard somebody with a platform and agenda but little actual knowledge of the game call the future Hall of Famer a ‘game manager’ (fun fact: every quarterback is a game manager) or a ‘system QB’ (fun fact: every quarterback is a system QB) to diminish his accomplishments.

Those labels are often based on stats such as yards per attempt, that are largely meaningless if not presented in a proper context. When we look a little closer at the New England Patriots’ deep passing performance, however, we can see that the team fared pretty well when Brady went down the field in 2018. While he didn’t throw deep often — 11.1% of his pass attempts traveled 20+ yards — the 41-year-old was productive when he did.

All in all, Brady attempted 77 such deep passes during last year’s regular season and playoffs. Of those attempts, 28 were completed for a success percentage of 42.9%. That number may seem low, but keep in mind that deep balls are generally low-percentage throws. New England’s quarterback still ranked thirteenth league-wide in deep ball completion rate — ahead of players such as Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan.

Of Brady’s deep completions, which went for a combined 837 yards, ten resulted in touchdowns. Five of his incomplete passes, meanwhile, were dropped by the targeted receivers while two more were intercepted by the defense resulting in a passer rating of 106.4 — the eleventh highest among qualifying quarterbacks last season. So no matter how you measure it, the Patriots’ deep passing game worked quite well in 2018.

Will anybody confuse the 2018 Patriots with their 2007 attack that featured peak Randy Moss? Of course not, but it was still productive when compared to the rest of the NFL. Keeping this productivity intact looking ahead towards the 2019 season, however, could be difficult for the world champions. After all, the team lost the majority of its deep-field receiving corps over the course of the offseason.

A look at the deep-field pass catchers from last year shows that:

Patriots pass catchers on deep targets

Player Targets Catches Yards Touchdowns Interceptions
Player Targets Catches Yards Touchdowns Interceptions
Rob Gronkowski 16 8 232 1 0
Chris Hogan 15 5 166 1 0
Josh Gordon 12 3 107 1 0
Julian Edelman 10 5 135 1 0
Phillip Dorsett 10 2 44 2 2
Cordarrelle Patterson 6 3 121 2 0
James White 4 1 14 1 0
Rex Burkhead 2 1 18 1 0
Dwayne Allen 1 0 0 0 0
Riley McCarron 1 0 0 0 0
Totals 77 28 837 10 2

As can be seen, the list of Brady’s deep targets in 2018 is topped by three players currently not on the Patriots’ 53-man roster: Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from the NFL in March, Chris Hogan joined the Carolina Panthers via free agency, and Josh Gordon is still indefinitely suspended. Together, the three men combined to be targeted on 43 of Brady’s 77 throws deep down the field — a considerable number.

The trio and fellow offseason departure Cordarrelle Patterson made up a large portion of New England’s deep attack. For comparison, the remaining pass catchers — Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, James White, Rex Burkhead — did not play that big a role in this area last season:

Status of Tom Brady’s deep targets in 2019

Status Targets Catches Yards Touchdowns Interceptions
Status Targets Catches Yards Touchdowns Interceptions
Not in New England 51 19 626 5 0
Still in New England 26 9 211 5 2

While Gordon’s status — he remains suspended but is expected to return to the team at one point during the 2019 season — could change the entire outlook, New England faces some questions when it comes to its deep passing game. The questions will need to be answered not just by the players remaining from last year, particularly Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett, but also by those who were brought in during the offseason.

The most prominent receiving targets in this category are first-round wide receiver N’Keal Harry, free agency acquisition/offseason workout standout Maurice Harris, and tight end Matt LaCosse. As things stand right now, all three are projected to make the Patriots’ roster this year — and to help replace some of the receiving production lost since the team’s victory in Super Bowl 53.

In that game, the Patriots mostly relied on their underneath passing attack. But when Brady went deep — on 4 of his 35 pass attempts, completing 2 for 54 yards — he was successful. In order for this success to be continued in 2019, New England’s pass catchers will need to step up whether they be named Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry or Maurice Harris. Deep-pass potential certainly exists with all of them, but a considerable level of uncertainty still remains.

One thing is certain, though: the Patriots won’t suddenly become a bombs-away offense, but instead will continue to look for mismatches and high-percentage plays in all parts of the field. They don’t need a deep passing game to be successful through the air, but as 2018 shows it can’t hurt to have the ability to challenge teams at all levels.