Explaining Bill Belichick’s Sudden Love Affair With Big Receivers
Everyone knows that part of Bill Belichick’s genius is his ability to implement a seemingly entirely new gameplan from week-to-week depending on the New England Patriots’ opponent for that week. But Belichick is even more dynamic; constantly changing the Patriots’ system overall from season-to-season depending on the personnel. Sometimes it is a requirement due to injury, suspensions, or retirements. At other times, it is because he sees an opportunity to zig while the rest of the NFL is zagging. In 2019, Belichick’s latest zig is to implement big receivers while the rest of the NFL is looking for the next Travis Kelce at tight end (no, there will never be another Gronk).
Last season, the Patriots mauled their way to victory in Super Bowl LIII thanks in large part to shutdown cornerback play and a ground game that bulldozed their way over tinier, hapless opponents. Belichick saw many NFL defenses utilizing smaller players, so GM Belichick went heavier offensively with monstrous linemen (hi Trent Brown) and beefy tight ends (thank you for the rings Dwayne Allen). There was practically no stopping the Patriots ground game. Plus, it served two functional and important purposes: (1) it kept Tom Brady healthier the longer the season progressed and (2) it gave the Patriots a method to keep the ball out of the hands of dominant offenses like the Chiefs and Rams.
The Patriots worked that system to perfection.
However, with the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, the question is, “how will the Patriots replicate that system without their otherworldly tight end?” The Josh McDaniels Bully Transformer Offense (TM) relied on a tight end that could do everything. But nobody–not Travis Kelce, not Kyle Rudolph nor T.J. Hockenson–can do what Gronk did. So instead of looking for the next Gronk or next Kelce like the rest of the NFL, Belichick is saying, “screw it, I will find the next market deficiency.”
Welcome to New England the big receivers.
Most of the football world was shocked the Patriots drafted a receiver with their first-round selection. But N’Keal Harry is not your average receiver. The Arizona State product is listed at 6’4, 213 pounds (he is, in reality, a little taller than 6’2). He is the type of wide receiver Tom Brady has not had in a long time. At least, that is the case when it comes to his catching ability. When it comes to his blocking though, he is the perfect Patriot wide receiver. But unlike Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola–great blockers who have thrived in the Patriots system despite being undersized–Harry is a monster.
McDaniels and Belichick are going to utilize the big receiver as a weapon every time he is on the field. Whether that is by getting him the ball through the air or by letting him give defensive backs the business in the ground game. There are multiple examples of Harry willing to scrap it out on the field and many of the draft experts love his willingness to chase DBs all over the field on run plays.
If the Patriots merely drafted Harry and left the big receiver mold stop at that, there would be no need for this article.
But Belichick also went out and signed Demaryius Thomas. The former Broncos wide receiver is recovering from a torn Achilles so some people are doubting whether he makes the roster once the season starts. However, the way the Patriots have constructed the roster thus far makes it look more and more likely that the Patriots are going to give the big receiver gameplan a shot (even new addition Dontrelle Inman is no slouch at 6’3/205). The reason is simple; a depth chart is not something constructed in a vacuum. Every player on the roster has to complement the other. And right now, when you look at the tight end position on the depth chart, it is noticeably thin.
Many people are panicking about the lack of tight ends on the Patriots roster and lack of impact tight ends for Brady. But the majority of tight ends in the NFL today are merely big wide receivers. These are not guys that can go out and truck a defensive end or execute a wham block on an interior linemen.
Belichick and McDaniels are smart. They are taking a survey of the tight end situation across the NFL and acknowledging the dirty secret of 2019; dual-threat tight ends are an endangered species. Better to accept that fate and find the closest thing to it; a big receiver.
These big receivers are the new tight ends and are about to be the most pivotal players on the field. Especially if NFL defenses are going to get lighter and faster. After all, if you cannot get to your block, it does not matter how big you are. Might as well find players that can stick with their blocks while pushing the DBs and hybrid linebackers/safeties around.
The Patriots succeeded last year by going old school but it looks like this season they are inventing a new school. The evolution of wide receivers is happening right before our very eyes and the Patriots–as always–are ahead of the curve. It is going to allow McDaniels flexibility on every play depending on the defensive personnel out on the field; an advantage the Patriots have enjoyed for the better part of the past decade thanks to Gronk and one McDaniels clearly wants to continue enjoying despite his absence.
The premise of the Patriots new philosophy appears to be quite easy to understand. If tight ends are no longer expected to block like tight ends and are merely big receivers, why not just roll with as many big receivers as possible? Force defenses to go small to cover all your receivers and proceed to bash your way to the end zone. It worked perfectly for the Patriots last year with Gronk and Allen. But both are gone. Instead of trying to fecklessly replicate that system, McDaniels and Belichick are creating an entirely new one. So the tight ends are gone. Enter the next big thing; the big receiver.