There’s no escaping it, Brandon LaFell had a rough 2015. Starting the year on the PUP and activated Week 7, LaFell began his campaign with a infamous day of drops- 6 on the official score-sheet vs. the Jets- that ended with the wide-out grading his return to action as an F.
An F that could very well define his season as a whole, the receiver’s report card failing to reach a passing level for a player who caught a career-best 75 passes in 2014, yet only a quiet 37 this year. Granted, that’s 37 over the course of ten weeks but not one of those scores got “JoJo” into the end-zone. A place the Patriots were accustomed to finding LaFell during the Pats Super Bowl run, the 6’2” wide-out tallying 9 scores (including two in the postseason) last year.
It’s clear LaFell possesses the talent, and perhaps more importantly possesses the trust of his quarterback as Brady both defended LaFell’s drops and continued to target him throughout the season.
But has he lost the Hoodie? For with LaFell due $2.4 Million in 2016, the final year of his 3-year contract with New England, Belichick could be leaning to cut ties, thereby saving the Pats $2.67 million in cap-space they could use elsewhere- possibly on a free-agent playmaker with more reliable hands.
But again LaFell has shown promise and worth in the past. And if he can get himself physically right this off-season, perhaps he can bring back what was sorely missed in 2015- an outside target who can stretch the field vertically.
Let’s take a look at what LaFell can bring to the table for New England. Reminding us all why Brady continues to applaud him, and what he can do to win back the rest of Foxboro’s heart.
Against Buffalo in 2014, LaFell is on the outside with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola stacked underneath in a trips formation. Edelman- as in classic Patriot fashion- is to run a rub route towards the inside, setting a pick for Amendola to wheel around him and towards the sideline.
Meanwhile LaFell initially cuts inside as well, crowding the field’s right third in order to free Amendola as a second option for Brady.
In 2015, LaFell was outmuscled when entering a compact, slightly claustrophobic area of field. But in this case, the wide-out not only navigates the tight quarters, but springs loose of his assignment by weaving through both the DB and linebacker over the top.
And once in open field, “JoJo” showcases the speed that makes him such an appealing target to Brady, finding the free space in the zone and avoiding a closing safety by cutting to the sideline, allowing his quarterback to hit him in stride before he gives his assignment one final stiff-arm en-route to six.
Jumping ahead to Super Bowl XLIX, LaFell is once again lined up outside, with Danny Amendola underneath him in the slot.
Seahawks’ cornerback Tharold Simon gives LaFell a 4-yard cushion here, knowing it is man-coverage and attempting to prevent any fade or back-shoulder to the end-zone’s far edge.
Brady sees this and instead has “JoJo” run a hard-cutting slant route, trusting LaFell to get to the fireball Brady has to thread between Simon and a crashing safety Earl Thomas III from overhead.
Despite Simon’s near-perfect coverage, LaFell brings in the Brady rocket, using his size to gain inside leverage and his strength to prevent the strip.
It’s what’s often overlooked with LaFell- his ability to bring in the ball despite a tight window, utilizing his crisp cuts off the plant foot to create space.
In the Divisional round vs. Baltimore, LaFell had another opportunity for a score, yet instead of
going inside, LaFell shimmied into a fade-route. Beating his man right from the snap’s break.
“JoJo got a great release,” said Brady in the divisional post-game, “… This team’s a fighting team.”
And Brandon LaFell is a fighting player. For even in disappointment his dedication to the Patriot way has never wavered. He’s produced when it’s mattered most and can create the “stretched spacing” New England’s bevy of slot-men need to make plays.
Let’s be clear. There are no excuses for LaFell’s lack of consistency this year, but given his history, his dedication to the franchise, and his proven ability to compete and win against the league’s top defenses… Shouldn’t New England cut the guy some slack? Rather than simply cut him all together?
By Cam Mellin