Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — the citizens of social media will surprise you, and in a good way. When news came late Wednesday afternoon that the Patriots had released wide receiver Brandon LaFell, I tweeted this:
I might be in the minority, but I'll remember LaFell well. Had many important moments during road to XLIX victory.— Chad Finn (@GlobeChadFinn) March 2, 2016
Honestly, I expected the phrase “good riddance’’ to be delivered in a variety of ways. Perhaps a wise-guy would suggest that he probably dropped his walking papers, that sort of thing. Instead, the Patriots fans who responded did an unexpected and reassuring thing: They agreed with me, choosing to recall the veteran receiver, who had a fine 2014 season with the Patriots and a not-so-good 2015 season, as someone who was crucial in winning Super Bowl XLIX rather than as the pass-dropping disappointment he was last year.
Maybe it wasn’t as easily forgotten as I assumed, but LaFell was really good in 2014. He caught 74 passes for 953 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, and added another 13 catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs. His second touchdown that postseason gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead over the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. His first touchdown that postseason was essential in getting them there. His 23-yard catch down the left sideline put the Patriots ahead, 35-31, in the divisional round comeback against the Ravens. The throw is on the short list of the best of Brady’s career, and the catch was nearly as dazzling.
That play alone should have bought him some leeway this year during his struggles. He never seemed right, beginning the year on the physically unable to perform list, then dropping a half-dozen passes in his debut, a Week 7 win over the Jets. He finished the season with just 37 catches — on 74 targets, a terrible ratio — for 515 yards. He didn’t have a touchdown. It was a rough year, and his departure was barely a surprise. But it’s worth remembering that, at his best, LaFell was reminiscent of a taller David Givens — tough, ferocious, and there when Brady needed him. I’m glad you wished him well, because he earned it.
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A few other scattered Patriots thoughts …
The closer we get to the NFL draft, the more frustrating it becomes that Robert Kraft signed off on the league taking away the Patriots’ first-round pick over Deflategate, an excessive punishment for what, at worst, was a petty misdemeanor of gamesmanship by their quarterback. It’s ridiculous that they’re losing the likelihood of drafting a core player.
And make no mistake, the draft pick probably would have become a core player. Bill Belichick has drafted 15 players in the first round since arriving in 2000. Seven of them — Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Brandon Meriweather and Chandler Jones — have been chosen for at least one Pro Bowl.
Even the Patriots’ worst first-rounders — Meriweather, Laurence Maroney, Daniel Graham, and Ben Watson would all be in that argument — had at worst decent careers and/or a memorable moment or two. There’s no doubt Goodell took away someone who would have played a relevant role in extending the franchise’s run of excellence.
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It’s interesting to look back and remember that the Patriots didn’t have a first-rounder in the 2000 NFL draft, Belichick’s first year here. Of course, it was because they had to give it to the Jets as compensation for hiring Belichick after he resigned as HC of the NYJ. The Patriots’ pick went from the Jets to the Niners, who used it on linebacker Julian Peterson. I always thought the Pats’ pick in that spot — No. 16 overall — would have been Alabama running back Shaun Alexander, who went 19th to the Seahawks.
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If Brady is suspended for a quarter of next season — and it certainly seems plausible after Thursday’s hearing — would it be foolish to suggest the Patriots should still ponder trading Jimmy Garoppolo if a team such as the Browns offers a bushel of draft picks? Yeah, you’re right: I suppose it would be foolish, since Matt Cassel, who was a pleasant surprise filling in for Brady in 2008 but isn’t particularly effective now, is among the best of the potential stopgap quarterbacks in free agency. Unfortunately, they can’t afford to trade Garoppolo now.
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I don’t care whether Marvin Harrison deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame before Terrell Owens. But I do know that Harrison shouldn’t be in before his nemesis Ty Law.