The New England Patriots, New York Jets, Denver Broncos, and Carolina Panthers all showed interest in free agent wide receiver Brandon LaFell, and he decided to sign a three-year deal worth $11 million with the Patriots after taking a visit to Foxboro early in the free agent period. The Broncos decided to sign last year’s Patriots WR target Emmanuel Sanders yesterday, and that cleared the way for LaFell to choose the Pats over the Panthers, who desperately need wide receiver help after releasing Steve Smith and losing both Ted Ginn Jr. and LaFell.
It’s going to be interesting to see what LaFell actually does for the Patriots, since he joins a somewhat crowded but unestablished rotation of wide receivers on the outside. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are locked in their roles, and Aaron Dobson showed enough to project as the team’s “X” receiver (or, at least, be in the lead for that role heading into training camp). Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce are the other two second-year wide receivers that need to be watched closely, with Thompkins also showing more last season.
So, again, where does LaFell fit? The Patriots have shown that they are willing to release wide receivers in training camp after signing them to deals in free agency, as they cut Donald Jones last year before his roster bonus was due after being high enough on their developing wideouts. Since we don’t know the structure of LaFell’s deal (every single minute detail matters), it’s also difficult to evaluate the deal, because we don’t know how much flexibility the Patriots have regarding their ability to cut him without cap ramifications.
Anyway, it does seem like the Patriots have a role planned out for another, more experienced wide receiver, because LaFell isn’t the only receiver whom they have shown interest in this March. They also gave him a three-year deal, which is another strong indicator that they envision him having a role of some significance in the offense. He’s set to get a bit under $3.7 million per year in base salary, so his deal is affordable but not dirt cheap.
This offseason, the Patriots have shown a desire to get deeper and more talent at wide receiver and cornerback, which are two positions where depth and talent are at their most important. Despite not needing a CB after signing Darrelle Revis, the Patriots still added Brandon Browner to stack up the position. Although LaFell isn’t as good as Browner, the Patriots weren’t as good at WR before making the move, even if they had enough depth that they didn’t need to sign him.
LaFell has nice size, and Bill Belichick probably loves the fact that he’s also a willing and able blocking receiver. There is little doubt that LaFell has the tools to succeed, and the Patriots are taking a flier on the chance that they can finally tap into his upside. In a sense, he’s a reclamation project if you want him to be anything more than a quality WR3, but the Pats are probably only hoping for a solid contribution from him with the added bonus of some potential upside. The 27-year-old LSU product is coming off of arguably his best season, as he caught 49 passes for 627 yards and five touchdowns. Based on his career yards per reception averages, LaFell can fit any kind of pass-catching role when it comes to either being a possession receiver or going downfield and making plays. He can do some of the things Dobson and Thompkins can do, and I would put him on the level of Dobson but with less upside and more well-rounded play.
I’ve been a huge Danny Amendola backer and believe it would be a mistake for the team to release a player who was actually very good last season when healthy, but I really do wonder how the LaFell signing affects Amendola’s spot on the roster. While Amendola is too productive and would carry too much dead money to release, this move does get the gears turning. However, I would be even more worried if I were Boyce, because he could find himself on the wrong side of the 53-man roster bubble if he turns in a poor camp.
I think LaFell ends up being part of the Patriots WR rotation next season and is behind Edelman, Amendola, Gronkowski, and probably Dobson when it comes to targets. I could see Dobson and LaFell jockeying for the fourth option spot in the Patriots offense, and it’s going to be interesting to see if the former Panthers receive can really put his tools to use in the Patriots offense. I’m not sure that’s going to be the case, but the Pats will be fine as long as he can cut down on some of his mistakes and provide some extra playmaking ability.