Without Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Lloyd on offense, the New England Patriots' offense will have a very different identity next season. Woodhead and Welker have already been replaced by more explosive entities in the forms of Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola, while Brandon Lloyd's replacement could be Lloyd himself on a cheaper contract, restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders or a dynamic draft pick.
Although it appears that the Patriots are simply replacing like with like, their resilience to re-sign Julian Edelman so far still sticks out. Of course, Edelman could just be a low-priority target, but the fact that he and Welker are not currently on the roster after two seasons when the Patriots short-passing attack fell short of a Super Bowl, indicates that the team could be about to move to a more aggressive approach.
Sanders and Amendola are somewhat similar to Welker and Lloyd, but both are greater vertical threats with more elusive ability in the open field.
Welker's strengths primarily came before the catch. His route-running, agility and consistent ability to catch the football allowed him to move the chains 81 times last season. 81 first downs on 118 receptions is a phenomenal ratio and contribution, but Welker's six touchdowns ranked 34th in the league, while his average of 11.5 yards per reception was the lowest of any receiver ranked in the top 25.
Statistically, Welker's numbers are more in line with possession tight ends opposed to explosive receivers.
Amendola's numbers are significantly worse than Welker's, but that is to be expected considering the different situations the pair have played in over their careers. Much like Welker, Amendola is excellent before the catch. His quickness and route-running with an aggressive nature attacking the football over the middle makes him an excellent possession receiver. However he also has an ability to beat defenders deep for massive gains. His career average is only 8.8 yards per reception, but that is largely a product of the Rams' offensive line that forced Sam Bradford to quickly get rid of the ball.
In the Patriots' offense, Amendola would get better service from his quarterback, but also less attention from the secondary and more time to develop his routes. That should allow his numbers to be a better representation of his on-field play.
When the Patriots signed Brandon Lloyd last off-season, the expectation was that he would provide a deep threat that would perfectly complement the rest of the Patriots' pieces. It's hard to say that Lloyd didn't do that. Undoubtedly his speed alone affected defenses pre-snap even if he never really made the big plays down the field that the Patriots were expecting on a consistent basis. Lloyd still finished the season with over 70 receptions and 900 yards. However, his four touchdowns were a result of his style of play. Lloyd's best work comes adjusting to passes in tight coverage as he can make all the difficult receptions asked of him. However, rarely does he really run away from defenders or tower over them.
Instead, Lloyd relied on his agility to make receptions with defenders in close proximity. That is an impressive feat, but a feat that means the defenders are always in place to tackle him.
Should Sanders replace Lloyd, the Patriots would be adding a different dimension to their offense. Sanders has had a rough time with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first three seasons of his career. Injuries, inconsistent play and a family bereavement stand out when you trace back through his time in the NFL
. As a sheer talent, Sanders has all the physical tools needed to be an explosive receiver. He natural catches the ball with his hands as part of a wide wingspan, while he has the speed and agility to run away from defenders or lose them in tight spaces with quick movements.
Sanders hasn't really been used as a deep threat for most of his career. Having Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown around him meant that he was looked to more as a slot receiver and targeted in situational football. Much like Amendola, his 13.7 yards per reception for his career doesn't truly represent his ability to make big plays.
Of course, Sanders isn't yet a member of the New England Patriots, but if they really want him they can acquire him with relative ease. They have certainly shown enough interest in the 26-year-old to make him a part of their offense.
Tom Brady may not have the most aggressive of deep balls or strongest of arms, but the makeup of the Patriots' offense as it currently stands is too limited. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are elite tight ends who can do almost anything when it comes to making plays as a receiver, but when they are complemented by possession receivers, less questions are being asked of the defense.
The Patriots were still able to put up record numbers in the regular season, but when it comes to producing against the better defenses in the playoffs, that lost dimension becomes an important and limiting factor. With the moves the Patriots are at least exploring this off-season, it appears that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have recognized that aspect as something that needs to change.