FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots made a lot of big-name additions to their roster this offseason, but a big-bodied offensive addition has started making waves at practice.
It wasn’t an immediately smooth transition for wide receiver Brandon LaFell, but the former Carolina Panthers receiver has been showing up all over the field during joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was targeted a total of eight times in team drills (7-on-7 and 11-on-11) and came down with five receptions.
He and quarterback Tom Brady did not hit it off immediately during minicamp and OTAs, but the two seem to have hit stride, particularly over the past two days.
“It’s been getting better day-by-day,” he said after practice on Wednesday. “It was rocky this offseason, because I was the new guy here, and I didn’t know too much. I didn’t know where he wanted me to be, but you know, the more reps I get with him, and the more times he throws me the ball, day-by-day we just continue to get better. I think we’re on a good path right now.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing with him,” said Brady. “He adds a lot. He’s got a real love for the game, he does a great job out there getting open. He just keeps making more plays. That’s been really fun for a quarterback to see guys out there really working hard to make the improvements and then really do it. Hopefully it continues to carry over. It’s been a lot of fun to be with him.”
Last week during practices with the Washington Redskins, Brady referenced LaFell’s size and said it’s been nice to have a bigger-bodied receiver out there with all the “pygmies” like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, both of whom are 5-foot-10.
The big-bodied receiver role is not a new one for the 6-foot-2 LaFell, who has become accustomed to being the big guy over his career.
“I’ve always been the bigger-bodied receiver,” he said. “In Carolina, they had Smitty [Steve Smith] and Ted [Ginn Jr.] and there was me, and I was the bigger guy out there. It’s nothing new to me. It’s just always how it be. I know those guys, they’ve worked with Tom the last couple of years, they got a lot of chemistry … and he trusts those guys. So I know those guys are going to get the ball, but I know that in the red zone, you kind of need that bigger body and I’m hoping I can be that guy.”
LaFell finished third on the Panthers last season in red zone targets (nine) and red zone catches (five), and tied for second-most on the team with four red zone touchdown receptions.
Of course, in the Patriots’ offense, it’s never as much about the physical tools as it is about the football intelligence and an understanding of the offense.
In that sense, LaFell admitted to having some early trouble switching from the Panthers’ numbers-based offense to the Patriots’ system, which is heavy on verbiage. He has hit some snags along the way, but he is beginning to feel like he understands the offense and can now start playing faster.
That being said, there are still some struggles for the newly-minted Patriots wide out.
“There was a certain play call here — a certain formation we got called here, it was a play call in Carolina,” said LaFell, “so I get to the line and I come out the huddle and I go, ‘Aw, hell, that’s not the play, that’s the formation.’ So something like that, but I’m getting used to it now.”
Free agent receivers like Joey Galloway and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco have fizzled out in New England, but one of the problems has been their inability to get a firm grasp of the offense and get on the same page with Brady.
LaFell appeared headed for a similar fate in the early stages of the offseason workout program, but the forecast is looking better now. If things continue trending in this direction, LaFell could find himself to be an integral part of the Patriots’ offense, in the red zone or otherwise.