It was a joke until it wasn’t. The meme became reality on Saturday afternoon when Antonio Brown—who, following an offseason of strange antics, had been released by the Raiders just hours earlier—really did sign with the Patriots. The move was a risk, given all that had just transpired in Oakland, but one Bill Belichick took for the same reason he’s taken so many other gambles in the past: because he can. No other coach or general manager in the league has the job security and leeway that Belichick has in New England, and that freedom gives him the ability to take huge swings. There’s often value to be found in those gambits (see: Moss, Randy), and in this case, that value involves arguably the smartest coaching staff in football landing a versatile superstar.
Three weeks ago, with Josh Gordon still suspended and first-round pick N’Keal Harry trending toward injured reserve, it seemed like the Patriots were scrambling to find viable receivers. Now, their three-receiver sets will feature Brown, Gordon, and Julian Edelman. That doesn’t even sound fair. On the eve of the first Sunday of the season, the Patriots added the final layer to their multifaceted offensive approach in the form of one of the most talented players in football. And he could be the key to unlocking their passing game.
New England’s offensive system is based on flexibility. The Patriots, along with the Saints and 49ers, are the teams that consistently use the most personnel groupings in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels used 11 personnel on only 56 percent of the Patriots’ snaps last season, compared with the league average of 65 percent. That means the Patriots play nearly half their snaps with an extra tight end or a fullback on the field, and they use that approach to uniquely blur positional lines. Fullback James Develin can line up out wide as a receiver. Rob Gronkowski could either be a tight end or a receiver depending on the formation. Both James White and Rex Burkhead can align in the slot when two backs are on the field. New England’s coaching staff loves disguising one personnel grouping as something entirely different, and that tactic fits perfectly with Brown’s skill set.
Brown spent most of his time with the Steelers as an outside receiver, but he’s more than comfortable lining up in the slot. On 139 snaps from the slot last season, Brown averaged 2.27 yards per route run, the seventh highest mark in the league according to Pro Football Focus. The six receivers ahead of him? Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton, Davante Adams, and Cooper Kupp. Which is essentially a list of the most efficient slot receivers in the entire NFL. Brown is also arguably the league’s best route runner, with the short-area quickness and feel for leverage that allow him to dominate from the slot. Julian Edelman is often thought of as purely a slot guy, but he played about half his snaps last season as an outside receiver. With Brown and Edelman in the fold, McDaniels will be able to use them interchangeably depending on the matchup he’s trying to exploit.
What makes Brown so valuable, though, is that he can mimic Edelman’s game on one play and transform into a devastating deep-ball receiver on the next. The Patriots have been without that kind of vertical element since they had Brandin Cooks in 2017, and though the team is used to moving on from players without skipping a beat, they’ve missed having that kind of weapon in their arsenal. Cooks averaged 16.5 yards per reception in his one season in New England, the 12th highest mark in the league that year, and 33 percent of his targets traveled at least 20 yards in the air, which ranked second in the NFL among players with at least 20 deep targets. His 44.4 catch percentage on those plays ranked sixth.
Since trading Cooks to the Rams ahead of the 2018 season, the Patriots have been searching for that outside-the-numbers deep threat. At 6-foot-3, Gordon—who the Patriots acquired from the Browns last September—profiled as that kind of player, but he does a majority of his work on intermediate routes over the middle of the field. Of Gordon’s 40 receptions last season, 29 came between the numbers and traveled less than 20 yards in the air. Phillip Dorsett, who played 425 snaps on the outside last season, got most of the work outside the numbers. Those snaps will now go to Brown, and in three-receiver sets, New England can attack defenses over the top with Brown, crush them over the middle with Gordon, and tear them up underneath with Edelman. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
It’s not as if Tom Brady needed a player of Brown’s caliber for New England to be one of the league’s most efficient offenses, but now he has one anyway. Adding Brown gives Brady the best three-receiver combination that he’s played with in years, and that trio will give McDaniels and Belichick the flexibility to be unpredictable with their offensive packages. Part of the Patriots’ motivation to move away from three-receiver sets last season was that they didn’t have the personnel to do it effectively, especially after Gordon was suspended mid-December for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. In the playoffs, the Patriots ran 41 percent of their plays with two backs on the field, and 17 percent of those came with two tight ends on the field. With Gronkowski retired, tight end Ben Watson suspended for the first four games of the season, and Brown in the fold, New England is now more likely to lean on three-receiver and two-back alignments, which will allow McDaniels to get his best players on the field and play against tendency.
That last part gets to the heart of what has made the Patriots so great for so long. New England has a giant target on its back every year, but that target is constantly moving. Predicting what the Patriots will look like offensively each season is a fool’s errand because they’re constantly adding new wrinkles and presenting their concepts in new ways. With his ability to be a different type of receiver in different situations, Brown is the perfect piece to continue that trend.
The Pats’ recent full embrace of the running game and Brady’s age mean that Brown probably won’t be in line for the type of record-shattering season that Randy Moss had upon his arrival in New England in 2007. But even if his numbers aren’t historic, the impact he will have on this offense is immense. For years, Gronkowski was the movable piece that allowed the Patriots’ chameleon-like offense to morph from play to play. Barely six months after losing him, Belichick has found another one. With the Patriots, the beat just goes on.