So is there reason for legitimate optimism? Well, let’s take a look.
First, the upside. It has to be considered a positive that the Patriots coaches felt comfortable enough with Tate to give him 21 offensive snaps in his first game (the one in London vs. Tampa Bay) coming off the PUP list, a pretty hefty workload for a rookie receiver in his first live pro action of any kind. He didn’t play as much the next week against Miami, but that could’ve been injury-related, with the knee ailment making that his final game of the 2010 season.
Also, Butch Davis and offensive coordinator John Shoop run a pro system at North Carolina, so it’s not like Tate’s gone from English class to Algebra. Giants’ rookie Hakeem Nicks showed last year (47 receptions, 790 yards, 6 touchdowns) how ready a Tar Heel can be to enter the NFL. And there’s a need for a player like Tate — a guy who can get downfield — in the Patriots offense.
Now, the flipside of that comes when you examine what kind of receiver Tate was at Carolina, which was an average one. In four years at Chapel Hill, Tate caught 46 balls (third-round rookie Taylor Price had 10 more than that last year alone, and in an option offense). His career high was 25, caught as a junior. And he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire offensively when he got hurt as a senior,
with 11 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown with 16 catches for 376 yards and three touchdowns through five games (I misread those stats at first … thanks to a commenter for pointing it out).
By comparison, Nick caught 39 balls as a true freshman in 2006, 74 as a sophomore in 2007, then busted loose for 68 catches, 1,222 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008 before declaring early for the draft.
That’s probably why some people viewed Tate as a return specialist — and he was obviously very, very accomplished in that area at UNC — going into the 2009 draft. The Patriots obviously feel he projects to be more than that, which is why they took a flyer on him back in the third round that April.
Then, there’s Tate’s ability to stay healthy to consider.
Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d go back and look at the 2009 Pro Football Weekly Draft Preview’s assessment of Tate. Here’s what I read there …
“Measured smaller than expected at the Combine and may not be fully recovered entering fall camp after tearing multiple ligaments in his knee, but possesses legitimate burst, vision and run skills to become a top-tier returner. Has shown he can be a weapon in the slot.”
All this makes him probably one of the more interesting stories to watch over the next few months.
But remember, folks, it’s May. Everyone looks great now. Let’s wait and see.