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Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Predictions: Forecasting the passing game

By ESPNBoston.com

Today we continue our weeklong Patriots prediction series, in which we ask our experts to forecast individual performances for offensive skill players and overall team defensive statistics. Today’s focus is the passing game.

Based on numbers from previous seasons, we’re projecting Tom Brady to throw for 5,000 yards with 400 completions and 40 touchdown passes. How will those stats be distributed among individual pass-catchers?



•   Mike Reiss’ breakdown: These numbers factor in the likelihood that not every player will be available for all 16 games. Welker still looks like the main target -- we saw how the offense missed him at times this preseason -- so he stays in the lead position. But with more balance in the passing game, specifically with Lloyd as a threat on the perimeter, the thought from here is that the pass-catching production will be distributed a bit more evenly than in recent years, when it was Welker and then a wide gap to the No. 2 target.

Rob Gronkowski & Aaron Hernandez
Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 24 receiving touchdowns last season. How many will they have in 2012?
For Gronkowski, a 71-catch, 11-touchdown season would be a reduction from last year's record-setting 17-touchdown campaign, but it would still be high-level production from a player who figures to draw even more attention than he did last year, especially in the red zone. Hernandez should duplicate last year's work (79 catches, 7 TDs), if not exceed it, as he's looked terrific in the preseason. Some might say the numbers for Salas are too high, and that's fair. Just playing a hunch there, as it's hard to imagine the Patriots trading for him if they didn't think he could produce.

•   Mike Rodak’s breakdown: The most obvious change here is a drop in Gronkowski's numbers, given that teams will be adjusting their defensive schemes to stop the tight end's production above all else. Will they succeed? In the red zone, maybe not. Gronkowski is still a tough guy to cover, and his 15 touchdowns represent only a slight drop from his 17 grabs last season.

The Lloyd factor is one to watch here. In all likelihood, he will quickly surpass Chad Ochocinco's production of 15 catches last season. This projection has him making 62 receptions for 1,078 yards, a 17.4 yard-per-catch average that could prove explosive in this offense.

Also explosive is the potential for Hernandez's numbers to spike, especially with the team lacking a proven option as a third wide receiver. Brady could have two go-to options in the offense -- Welker and Hernandez -- which could also dampen Welker's numbers slightly. This projection has him shedding about 20 catches from his 122-reception mark set last season.

•   Field Yates’ breakdown: Though the Patriots ended up parting ways with a number of the veteran receivers brought aboard this offseason, the team still has something of an embarrassment of riches in terms of offensive weapons, led by a quartet of players each projected to approach 1,000 yards this season. Between tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez plus receivers Welker and Lloyd, the team possesses four mismatches for any defense, and players who could each emerge as the team's top receiving threat this season.

Given the presence of Lloyd, the continued emergence of Gronkowski and Hernandez, as well as what looks to be a beefed up running game, Welker's production is ready to slide a bit, but it won't be due to any diminished skills. Rather, the Patriots find balance in the passing game with Gronkowski and Hernandez set to control the middle of the field.

Beyond this “core four,” look for Brady to develop chemistry with his remaining options, including his running backs and depth-level tight ends and wide receivers.

•   Your turn: How would you distribute the Patriots' catches (400), receiving yards (4,000) and touchdown catches (40)? Share your predictions in the comments section. At the end of the season, we’ll recognize the reader who was closest to the actual numbers.