The year was 2006.
The Patriots were coming off of their first playoff loss of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, a 27-13 thumping to the Denver Broncos on the road in the AFC Divisional Round. You may remember it as the Ben Watson-Champ Bailey game.
Brady’s top two receivers the previous season had been Deion Branch (78 catches, 998 yards) and David Givens (59 catches, 738 yards). Givens left for a lucrative free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans, while Branch held out and was ultimately dealt to the Seattle Seahawks following Week 1 of the 2006 season.
New England’s wide receiver depth chart for the majority of the season consisted of Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel and a 35-year-old Troy Brown. Watson was still a promising young tight end entering his third season, and the ever-reliable Kevin Faulk was still in his prime coming out of the backfield. After Gabriel was released, the Patriots signed the underrated Jabar Gaffney, but you all remember how 2006 ended: Caldwell was far too much of a liability to be Brady’s – or anybody’s – No. 1 receiving option in the fourth quarter of an AFC Championship Game.
What happened next changed NFL history, when Bill Belichick splurged on Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth in the offseason. Though the Patriots never won a Super Bowl with any of those players on the roster, those names ultimately gave way to Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola. Brady would never be hung out to dry in a big spot again.
Until…now? The presence of Gronkowski alone is enough to lift this group over the 2006 crew, but make no mistake about it: on paper, this is as weak a skill position group Brady has played with in a dozen years.
After training camp began in July, targets for Brady in the passing game went down one by one. Jordan Matthews, Malcolm Mitchell and Kenny Britt were all jettisoned, while Eric Decker – who signed with the Patriots on Aug. 3 to help salvage the depth chart – retired before he was officially released.
Edelman’s suspension for the first four weeks of the regular season creates a perception that isn’t too far off from reality. Chris Hogan has been great in his two seasons as a Patriot, but he’s never been a focal point of the offense. Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett are each former first-round draft picks, and while Patterson is one of the most electrifying kick returners in the league, neither instill a great deal of confidence as a go-to guy for Brady.
Dorsett joined the Patriots a little more than a year ago, coming over from the Indianapolis Colts in a trade that sent Jacoby Brissett the other way. After a promising three catch, 68-yard performance in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints, he had just one catch the next six games and finished his first season in Foxboro with 12 catches for 194 yards.
Not a lock to make the roster until he was one of the last receivers standing, Dorsett doesn’t hide the fact that it’s tough to be thrust into the Patriots’ offense.
“You’ve got to put the work in,” Dorsett said. “You get out of it what you put in. It’s difficult, everybody knows that, it’s no secret. It’s definitely tough. But if you come in with the right mindset, with an open mind ready to work, you’ll be alright.”
Count Troy Brown himself among those who believe this isn’t quite as bleak as 2006. Coming into that season, Brown figured he’d be on the field for 35, maybe 40 percent of New England’s offensive snaps and in some crucial third-down situations.
Instead, Brown wound up third on the team in both catches (43) and receiving yards (384) behind Caldwell and Watson. He was Brady’s third-most targeted receiver for the season, with 75 targets – the fourth-most as a receiver in his 15-year career.
“The good thing for the Patriots is they do have Tom Brady, they do have Josh McDaniels who can get a little creative with his offensive sets and use Rex Burkhead and James White and whatever backs he has available to him,” Brown said of the current group. “Maybe even Jacob Hollister this week. Get these guys involved in the passing game and take up some of the slack that Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman would’ve taken up.”
Amendola – as well as Brandin Cooks, who was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in the off-season – sure would look good back in Foxboro right now.
Dorsett feels confident in himself taking a leap entering his fourth NFL season. Even if it was a preseason game, the fact Brady would look Dorsett’s way on a fourth-and-3 situation in Carolina a few weeks back is something that would have been unfathomable at any point last season. The Patriots wound up converting after a 6-yard reception for Dorsett.
“Roles change,” Dorsett said. “You learn more, you get to do more. Having a whole offseason under my belt shows more of what you can do. I feel like it helps. I’m continuously growing in this offense.”
Dorsett or Patterson have an opportunity over the next four weeks to earn Brady’s trust, something which would absolutely pay dividends much later in the season.
If not, Edelman returns for Week 5 vs. the Colts…at 32 years old coming off an ACL tear.
“I’m not too optimistic about the start of the season for them, but they’ll get it together,” Brown said.