LaFell has had a terrific first year in New England. (USA TODAY Images)
People will forever spend a lot of time pining over bringing a player like Dez Bryant or a Calvin Johnson to team up with Tom Brady, especially after seeing how electric New England’s offense became after adding Randy Moss to the mix. However, while it wasn’t considered a big signing when it happened, it’s hard not to appreciate just how good Brandon LaFell has been in his first season catching passes from Brady.
LaFell played in all 16 games for the Patriots in 2014, catching 74 passes for 953 yards along with seven touchdowns. Ironically, his 74 receptions were more than Johnson (71), and just one fewer touchdown than the eight Megatron finished with this season. Obviously there’s a stark difference between the two players, but it’s still hard not to appreciate what LaFell ultimately accomplished, especially given his previous performances in Carolina. His 74 catches were a career high, dramatically eclipsing his previous high of 49 from last season and were also more than some other notable names including Vincent Jackson (70), Antonio Gates (69), Michael Crabtree (68) and last offseason’s big name free agent, Mike Wallace (67).
Fans never like seeing the Patriots go for value, but that’s exactly what they got in LaFell, and more importantly they got a guy who has simply been a perfect fit in an offense that needed a big, reliable target. At 6’3″ he’s been a go-to guy for Brady throughout the season, and his 50 first downs trail only Rob Gronkowski (60) as a player who moved the chains the most for New England in 2014.
Here’s a breakdown of his stats from 2014:
LaFell’s 2014 Season Totals:
74 receptions/119 Targets (62% completion percentage), 953 yards, 50 first downs, 7 TD’s
LaFell’s Numbers By Down:
1st: 39 receptions/54 targets (72% completion percentage), 473 yards, 25 first downs, 3 TD’s
2nd: 18 receptions/34 targets (53% completion percentage), 281 yards, 15 first downs, 2 TD’s
3rd: 16 receptions/29 targets (55% completion percentage), 183 yards, 9 first downs, 2 TD’s
4th: 1 reception, 2 targets (50% completion percentage), 16 yards, 1 first down
LaFell has played an important role in the Patriots success in 2014, and has an opportunity now to help them win their first championship since 2004.
(USA TODAY Images)
Looking closer relative to other Patriots receivers, LaFell is the player the Patriots went to quite a bit on first down this season, leading all receivers with 39 receptions on first down, 25 of which went for a first down. That means 64.1% of those catches moved the chains, which is even slightly ahead of Gronkowski (63.6%), who caught 33 passes on first down, 21 of which gave them a new set of downs. Garoppolo was 2-of-2 targeting him Sunday with two first downs, while Brady didn’t target him.
At second glance last season Brady finished with a completion percentage of 58% on first down, with Julian Edelman leading all receivers with 38 receptions and a team leading 17 first downs (45% conversion). Brady also finished with a 66% completion rate throwing the ball on first down, obviously far ahead of where he finished last season and LaFell played a big part in that.
It’s pretty impressive given where he was back in OTA’s where he admitted he was a little ‘shell-shocked’ and it’s no secret that this offense has been too much for other veterans to adapt to. Fortunately for LaFell, that hasn’t been the case.
“OTAs I was shell-shocked, didn’t know what to expect,” LaFell told NESN back in August. “Everything was all new to me. I was in Carolina for the last four years, so I got used to that routine, got used to that playbook. Everything’s new here, and since the beginning of camp, I feel way more comfortable. Just being in the huddle with Brady, hearing him call the plays. I’m way more comfortable.”
Fast forward four months and he doesn’t look like a guy who has only been here one season. Back then he seemed a long shot to earn a role behind second year incumbents Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, as well as veteran Danny Amendola. Instead he’s taken the reigns and he’s a player who already makes New England much tougher heading into the postseason than they were in 2013. He’s been banged up, knocked around and he’s a guy who has shown a lot of grit and determination this season. It’s hard not to root for this guy, and by now most Patriots fans really appreciate just how good he’s been.
With the regular season now in the rear view, this Patriots group of receivers looks far more formidable heading into the postseason compared to a year ago. Granted having Gronkowski out there is going to be the biggest difference maker, but the combination of Gronk, Edelman, and LaFell is a pretty tough match-up for most defenses.
It’s amazing to think that in the beginning of the season he was just trying to carve out a role for himself. Now here the Patriots are, in control of their own destiny with their best shot at winning their fourth championship in recent memory. There’s still plenty of football left, but with LaFell now in the mix with Gronkowski and Edelman, there’s certainly enough of a reason to think they’ll have just as good of a shot as anyone to go far in the weeks to come.