FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Luckily, an NFL season lasts 16 games and not two.
If it were one-eighth its current length, Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell would have finished with zero receptions on six targets. Fast forward six games and LaFell is among the top receivers in New England’s high-scoring, offensive juggernaut.
His performance on Sunday against the Chicago Bears was by far his best since joining the Patriots, and he even set career highs with 11 receptions and 127 yards, including a nine-yard touchdown to boot.
The Patriots offense was once criticized for being a two-horse show with wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski getting most of the looks, but LaFell has inserted himself into the mix to form a formidable triumvirate of options for quarterback Tom Brady.
“He made a bunch of plays,” Brady said after the game. “He has great catch-and-run ability. He’s such a strong runner and when you get the ball in his hands good things happen, so we’ve got to keep finding ways to get him the ball.”
Patriots receivers don’t always (read: ever) come in and immediately find ways to contribute. LaFell is bucking that trend. Through eight games, LaFell has 30 receptions, 461 yards and four touchdowns — on pace for 60 receptions, 922 yards and eight touchdowns. For reference, former Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd had 74 receptions for 911 yards and four touchdowns in 2012.
LaFell’s production has snowballed since he got off the schneid in Week 3 against the Oakland Raiders.
“I think we saw it in Kansas City,” head coach Bill Belichick said of LaFell’s breakout season. “[He’s a] big target, tough kid — really tough — plays hard, hard to tackle. I think we’ve seen a lot of examples of it this year; saw it in preseason, see it in practice.”
LaFell’s instant contributions are welcome and needed. The fifth-year veteran has been an upgrade in second-year man Aaron Dobson’s role as the ‘X’ receiver, lining up primarily outside the numbers and providing Brady a big-bodied target.
Week by week, LaFell is laying waste to the stigma that veteran free agent receivers can’t come to New England and flourish.
“I think with new players sometimes you really don’t know what someone’s able to do in your offense until you actually get out there and do it and you make the plays in game-type situations,” Brady said. “Even like his run after the catch ability, that doesn’t show up in training camp because we’re not tackling. And it doesn’t show up in the preseason — if he gets two catches a game it’s hard to tell. And then all of sudden you see it over eight games where he’s doing it every week and it becomes a big strength for your team.”
The list of failed free agent receivers is long and well-known: Joey Galloway, Chad Ochocinco, and Danny Amendola are just a few of the names. Week after week, LaFell adds to his resumé that is slowly but surely bucking the previous trend.