Missing in action: Can Patriots replace Julian Edelman?

Leave a comment

Julian Edelman immediately became Tom Brady’s favorite receiver when Wes Welker left New England. He led all Patriots receivers in catches in 2013 and 2014, highlighted by catching the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLIX. He is also out for likely the rest of the regular season, so New England has to try to continue their undefeated ways without him. Can they?

Edelman’s Role in the New England Offense

Julian Edelman was largely a short-area receiver for New England this season. Over half of his targets came no more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He was especially popular on passes beyond the line of scrimmage but no more than five yards downfield. Those passes are sometimes designed to create yards-after-catch opportunities. Sometimes, they involved finding a soft spot in zone coverages. In others, they relied on separation in tight spaces.

One place Edelman didn’t factor that much was in New England’s deep-passing game. Brady struggled to connect with him more than 15 yards downfield, and Edelman was New England’s eighth-most valuable receiver on deep passes by Football Outsiders’ numbers when he went down. Brady has already found Brandon LaFell, who started the season on the physically unable to perform list, on more deep completions than he did Edelman.

Though deep passes were not his forte, Edelman was so helpful to Brady because he could work all areas of the field. He lined up in the slot or outside on either the left or the right and ran both inside- and outside-breaking routes with success. This versatility is what made him so valuable.

New England’s Depleted Passing Targets

Like many teams, the Patriots often throw many of their passes to a small number of players. In 2013, only Edelman had more than 54 catches. Last year, just four players had more than 27 catches. This year, again just four players have at least 18 catches. Two of them are now injured. Edelman seems likely to return at some point, but running back Dion Lewis tore his ACL and is out for the season. Brady has just two high-volume targets left.

There are several silver linings to this story. First, Brady still has Rob Gronkowski, the most valuable receiving tight end in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Second, we have seen great quarterbacks with just two volume receivers before. Just look at Aaron Rodgers last year, when he threw half his passes to Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. Third, the cumulative season totals underrate the return of LaFell, whose improved performance coincided with the offense’s overall improvement after early-season struggles last year.

A Ready-Made Replacement, If and As Long As He Is Available

The fourth silver lining for New England and Brady is the other remaining target, Danny Amendola. Edelman’s production took off when Wes Welker left, but Amendola drew the big free agent contract presumably to do that exact job.

Amendola basically fits the Edelman mold to a tee. He does not have the same numbers, but his overall statistical profile is very much the same. An even bigger share of his targets come no more than five yards downfield, and he plays both the left and right sides and runs both inside- and outside-breaking routes. Importantly, Amendola is in his third season in New England. He might not have the same intuitive understanding Edelman did with Brady, but they have some rapport.

One downside of Amendola is he has a significant injury history. He played every game just twice in six seasons. He filled in the Edelman role admirably in the Bills game, to the tune of nine catches on 12 targets for 119 yards, but came out of it with a knee injury. That leads into the biggest concerns.

Where Edelman’s Absence Could Hurt

Early reports on Amendola’s injury said he was not expected to miss significant time. That is particularly important because there is no other player on the roster who could be expected to fill that role successfully. LaFell and Aaron Dobson are both outside receivers who complement the Edelman/Amendola role. In-season acquisition Keshawn Martin fits the physical prototype, but he struggled to find the field in Houston or succeed when he was there. Undrafted rookie Chris Harper spent most of the season on the practice squad. Neither is likely match Amendola’s chemistry with Brady, let alone that of Edelman.

The Patriots’ offensive line woes make that chemistry particularly important. Brady spent most of his career as one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. By Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric, he ranked in the top ten least-sacked passers every full season from 2004 to 2014 — but not 2015. New England currently ranks 22nd by ASR. That puts added importance on the safety-valve receiver. Even if many of those short passes are not very productive –and they were not for Edelman, or Amendola, or even Brady in general — they can be very important in key situations and are better than just taking a sack.

That is the real downside, if the Patriots are forced to rely on Martin, Harper, or even a player like tight end Scott Chandler: the pressure will get to Brady and he will either have to force passes to LaFell or Gronkowski or take sacks. Cincinnati and Denver’s struggles give the Patriots the inside track to a bye and home-field advantage. Those same struggles, though, show the thin line between winning and losing in the NFL, and New England’s potential downside.

The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

Leave a comment

The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Steratore will lead 7-person officiating crew for Super Bowl

Leave a comment

NEW YORK (AP) Referee Gene Steratore will lead the seven-person crew of on-field game officials working the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The other members of the officiating crew for the Feb. 4 game are Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge).

The crew has 127 years of NFL officiating experience and 101 combined playoff game assignments.

Steratore entered the league in 2003 as a field judge and was promoted to referee in 2006. He has officiated 11 playoff games, including two conference championships. He was the alternate referee for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Under the NFL officiating program’s evaluation system, officials must be rated in the top tier at their position to be eligible for the Super Bowl. They must have at least five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.

Paul Weidner is the replay official.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL