Missing in action: Can Patriots replace Julian Edelman?

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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.

Broncos double-digit favorites on Sunday night vs. winless, depleted Giants

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The Denver Broncos head into Sunday night with the largest spread they have had at home after a bye week in at least 25 years. The Broncos are 11.5-point favorites against the winless New York Giants with a 38.5-point total for the Week 6 Sunday Night Football matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Denver is 6-1 straight-up and against the spread in post-bye week games dating back to 2010. There’s a similar long-running trend of Denver being 7-2 SU and ATS in home games following a bye week since 2003. However, this is the first time since 1996 that Denver has been a double-digit favorite in that scenario.

The Giants, which are 0-5 SU and 2-3 ATS, had three wide receivers, including Odell Beckham Jr., sustain season-ending injuries last week. That has left QB Eli Manning with WR Roger Lewis (15 career catches) and WR Tavarres King as his main outside targets. Slot WR Sterling Shephard (sprained ankle) could be inactive.

While team performances tend to gravitate toward the mean with time, the Giants will need to show something new – with replacement-level personnel – in order to move the ball against a Denver pass defense which allows only 6.2 yards per pass, fifth-best in the NFL.

The Broncos’ top-ranked defense, led by OLB Von Miller, is also first in run defense and has every starter healthy. While NFC teams are a combined 1-10 SU on the road against Denver since 2012, the Giants are a solid 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games against the AFC.

Denver, 3-1 SU and 2-1-1 ATS, has been quietly efficient on offense. The Broncos, with QB Trevor Siemian, are in the middle of the NFL pack in yards per pass, but they are facing a Giants secondary that is minus CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (suspension) and has also had inconsistent play from CB Eli Apple.

Denver, 7-2 ATS over its last nine home games in October, has been good at opening holes for the tandem of C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles, who are each capable of making things happen in the open field if the tackling gets sloppy. New York also won’t have DT Olivier Vernon drawing double teams up front and keeping blockers off MLB Damon Harrison.

Unless the Broncos stop themselves, they should be able to grind out a workmanlike win.

The total has gone over in three of the Giants’ last four games against the Broncos, according to the OddsShark NFL Database. The total has gone over in six of the Broncos’ last seven games as a favorite of 11.0 points or more.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Watch Indianapolis Colts vs. Seattle Seahawks live on NBC

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The Seattle Seahawks host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football as both teams look to get back to .500.

Russell Wilson will be the focal point of the Seahawks offense after throwing for a career-high 373 yards and four touchdowns in a losing effort vs. the Titans in Week 3. Wilson’s ability to avoid the rush and use his legs will be on full display as Seattle’s offensive line continues to struggle.

On the defensive side, the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” will look to get back on track at home in a raucous environment against Colts QB Jacoby Brissett who is filling in for an injured Andrew Luck.

If the Colts have any chance to pull off the upset on the road, Brissett will have to use his legs and connect on some deep throws to T.Y. Hilton.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Colts vs. Seahawks

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app