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The Patriots’ Offensive Archetypes

In the 17 years since New England’s dynasty began, the NFL has changed drastically—but the Pats have always stocked their offense with a few specific types of playmakers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the past 17 years, the Patriots have achieved absurd, unrivaled consistency and success—and that’s especially true on the offensive side of the ball. In that stretch, New England has led the league in scoring three times, finished in the top five in points 10 times, and ranked in the top 10 in that category in all but one year. They’ve ranked no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA five times, in the top five 11 times, and in the top 10 in all but two seasons. That kind of year-to-year reliability is virtually unheard of in the salary cap era, and the Patriots owe much of that success to their twin future Hall of Fame pillars—quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick.

Like every other team in the league, New England’s schemes have changed, offensive coordinators have come and gone, and dozens of offensive playmakers have cycled through over the past nearly two decades. But a few important offensive roles have remained constant along the way, and the clichéd mantras “Next Man Up” and “Do Your Job” have become inextricably intertwined with the Patriots because of the team’s uncommon ability to plug new guys into the system just about every season. Here are the Patriots’ offensive archetypes that have emerged during the team’s dynastic run—and a few of the best players that have occupied each role.

The Big-Play Threat on the Outside

The Patriots acquired Brandin Cooks (and a fourth-rounder) from the Saints back in March in exchange for first- and third-round picks, and the speedster quickly established himself as Brady’s favorite deep-ball target. He finished with 65 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging a team-high 16.6 yards per catch (good for seventh league-wide).

Before Cooks, that role was played by Chris Hogan, a former lacrosse player (not sure if you’ve heard that one) who caught 38 passes for 680 yards and four touchdowns in 2016 and tied for the league high with 17.9 yards per catch. Going back a little further—remember Brandon Lloyd? Lloyd, the sideline toe-touch specialist who played for seven teams over the course of 11 seasons, was Brady’s big-play guy up the sideline during the 2012 season. He reeled in 74 catches for 911 yards and four touchdowns that year, making his mark with his penchant for miraculous, diving grabs.

There’s a few other names worth highlighting, like Troy Brown, who caught a then-franchise-record 101 passes in 2001, or David Givens, who caught 158 passes and 12 touchdowns for the Patriots from 2002 to 2005 and tacked on a ridiculous seven postseason scores. There was David Patten, who caught 165 balls for 2,513 yards and 16 touchdowns from 2001 to 2004, averaging 15.2 yards per catch, and was another clutch playoff performer with a touchdown catch for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. And add a third playoff hero, Deion Branch, who caught 10 passes for 143 yards and a score in Super Bowl XXXVIII, then won the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP the next year with an 11-catch, 133-yard performance. But no one comes close to matching the sheer terror that Randy Moss struck in the hearts of opposing defenses.

Moss had, arguably, the most spectacular single season of any pass catcher in NFL history for the Patriots in 2007, catching 98 balls for 1,493 yards and an NFL-record 23 touchdowns. You can watch all of them here:

At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Moss had a blend of size, speed, and incredible hands that made him just about impossible to defend anywhere on the field. Brady made good use of his unguardable deep threat, and in three (and a quarter) seasons with the team, Moss caught 259 balls and 50 touchdowns.

The Power Back

This year’s Patriots team has eschewed the power back staple for the most part, leaving Mike Gillislee on the sideline in favor of the more dynamic Dion Lewis. But going through the Brady-Belichick years, a big-bodied, between-the-tackles runner has been a mainstay of this squad’s schemes. Last season, it was LeGarrette Blount, the 250-pound battering ram (and current Eagle) who rushed for 1,161 yards and scored a league-high 18 touchdowns.

Going down the line, we find Stevan Ridley, a 5-foot-11 230-pounder whose best year came in 2012, when he rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 scores. Before him, there was the 5-foot-11, 220-pound bruiser BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a player known as “The Law Firm,” who racked up 1,675 yards and 24 touchdowns combined in 2010 and 2011, and never lost a fumble in his time in New England. There was the 220-pound Sammy Morris, who ran for a combined 1,430 yards and 12 scores from 2007 to 2009, and Laurence Maroney, who rushed for 2,430 yards and 21 touchdowns from 2006 to 2009. Add in Antowain Smith, who gained more than 2,700 yards and scored 21 touchdowns from 2001 to 2003.

But of all the team’s between-the-tackles, sustaining running backs, Corey Dillon may have been the most talented and complete player. Dillon set a new Patriots franchise record with 1,635 yards in 2004 (a record that still stands) and in his three seasons with the team rushed for 37 scores.

The Pass-Catching Back

The Patriots are probably better known, though, for their creative use of pass-catching running backs. Both James White (who set a Super Bowl record last year with 14 catches) and Dion Lewis (who is one of the most underrated players in the league) have been dangerous mismatch-makers out of the backfield for New England over the past few years, and both figure to be a big part of the Patriots game plan this Sunday against the Eagles. Shane Vereen caught a combined 99 passes for 874 yards and six touchdowns in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and before the Cal star took over, the versatile Danny Woodhead played that role. Woodhead broke out for the Patriots in 2010, catching 92 balls and four scores to go with his 1,199 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in a three-season stretch until leaving for the Chargers in 2013.

But it was Patriots Hall of Fame inductee Kevin Faulk who paved the way for the rest of the team’s long line of Swiss army knife backs. Faulk did a little bit of everything for New England throughout his 13-year career with the team—and while the fan favorite never really put together a statistically prolific season, his tenure was defined by consistency and incredible longevity. Faulk’s final statline shows just how much of a dual-threat he really was: On the ground, he totaled 3,607 yards and 16 scores, and through the air, 3,701 yards and 15 touchdowns.

The Uber-Quick Slot Receiver

No team is more uniquely tied to one position than the Patriots are to the slot receiver. New England redefined the way that pro football was played in its remarkable run to a 16-0 regular-season record in 2007, a chain of events precipitated by their decision to trade for then-Dolphins receiver Wes Welker. As Ringer colleague Kevin Clark wrote, “the Patriots’ use of Wes Welker in the slot [that year] helped the position become not only ubiquitous but crucial—and in response, defenses now typically employ an extra defensive back.” The Pats weren’t the first to utilize a slot receiver, but they were the catalyst for its explosion in popularity, and now the most common personnel group in the NFL is the three-receiver set. In turn, the 2007 Pats helped usher in the advent of the nickel defense as the league’s new base defensive scheme. In six seasons from 2007 to 2012, Welker caught 672 passes for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns and led the league in receptions three times.

When Welker left for Denver, his role was inherited by Julian Edelman, who posted a combined 356 catches and 3,826 yards, and scored 20 touchdowns from 2013 to 2016. Edelman is one of the best all-around offensive players to catch passes from Brady; He’s competitive, extremely quick in and out of his breaks, can do plenty of damage after the catch, and he’s got a knack for making clutch postseason grabs.

The versatile Danny Amendola deserves a mention here, too, as a budding postseason legend who always seems to come up biggest when the game’s on the line.

The Mismatch-Making Tight End

This is a top-heavy list, as Rob Gronkowski’s probably the most dominant tight end that’s ever played the game, but it’s a position group that’s long been a focal point in the team’s scheme. Gronk’s already caught 76 touchdown passes since he came into the league in 2010, which is the most among all players in that time.

Of course, Gronkowski’s also missed plenty of time in his career, and the Patriots have had to make do with a combination of players at that spot. Last year, Martellus Bennett filled in admirably when Gronk missed eight games, catching 55 passes for 701 yards and seven scores. Before his June 2013 arrest and subsequent dismissal from the team, the way the Patriots deployed Aaron Hernandez helped change how teams utilize two-tight-end sets, and Hernandez caught 175 passes and 18 touchdowns in his three years with the team.

Ben Watson spent his first six seasons in the league in New England (2004 to 2009) and caught 167 passes and 20 touchdowns. Before him, the team’s red zone mismatch-maker was Daniel Graham, who caught 68 passes and 11 touchdowns combined in 2003 and 2004—including a seven-touchdown performance in 2004, which tied for second among tight ends that year. Christian Fauria played with the Patriots from 2002 to 2005, and tied for the league lead among tight ends with seven touchdowns in his first year with the team.

Plus, he may never be listed as such, but the Patriots were never shy in utilizing linebacker Mike Vrabel as a de facto tight end in goal-line situations over the years, and he caught 10 touchdowns in his eight years with the team—including two in Super Bowls.

Honorable Mention: The Neck Roll–Sportin’ Fullback

It’s a dying position, but no Patriots offense is complete without its requisite lead-blocking fullback. New England led the league in two-back sets this year, and the versatile James Develin played his part masterfully and split his time between taking on linebackers in the hole and lining up wide on the wing to dictate matchups and expose defensive coverage schemes. Develin was preceded by guys like Heath Evans (2005 to 2008), Patrick Pass (2000 to 2006), and Marc Edwards (2001 to 2002).