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Identifying Tom Brady's Newest Third Down Receiver

Courtesy of Sporting News
A lot of New England Patriots fans seem to be concerned with filling the void left by Danny Amendola this season, even more so now with Julian Edelman slated to miss the first four games. The biggest question mark exists on third downs. These guys have been Tom Brady's "security blankets" over the past few seasons. In a big moment, money on the table, Brady was always looking for #11 or #80.

Think back to Super Bowl XLIX. Trailing the Seattle Seahawks by 10 in the fourth quarter, Brady found Edelman to convert on a 3rd and 14. The rest is history. Amendola did his best Edelman impression in last year's AFC Championship game. The Patriots were again, down 10 in the fourth quarter. Facing a 3rd and 18, season on the line, Brady fired a missile to Amendola for a first down. We all know what happened next. In these high-stakes moments, Brady has normally relied on the same cast of characters.

Since the Brady era began back in the 2001-2002 season, very few teams have been as proficient as the Patriots when it comes to third down offense. Since that time -- 17 seasons -- the team has had a top 10 third down offense 14 times. No other team has finished inside the top 10 as often as the Patriots have during that span.

Whereas some teams prefer to have its defense on the field to close out the game, the Patriots win games by extending drives and bleeding clock. Converting on third down is a major reason for the Patriots sustained success. The circumstances don't seem to matter. Third and long. Third and short. Trying to ice the game. Trying to win the game. The Patriots have consistently executed on third down, to the point where it has become an expectation, and something that can be taken for granted.

Obviously, personnel and playcalling are key in situations like those. However, another key component is trust. You hear a lot about how important it is for wide receivers to earn the trust of Brady. If you can't get on the same page as Brady -- make the right read, be in the right spot -- your targets are minimal.

Wes Welker was one of Brady's most trusted targets. So it should come as no surprise that 2013-14 -- the year after Welker joined the Denver Broncos -- was one of the Patriots' worst seasons in terms of third down offense, during the Brady era. To further complicate matters, the Patriots also lost Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead and Aaron Hernandez in that same offseason.

Brady entered that year having lost four of his top five receivers from the previous season. The offense never seemed to find its rhythm. It was the first season in which Brady posted a QB rating under 90 since 2006, and it was his lowest rating since 2003. Rob Gronkowski missed half of the season. Edelman caught over 100 passes, but the next best receiver was Amendola who caught 54. Brady was searching all season long for reliable targets.

This year won't be as drastic of a change as 2013, but it will still be a challenge. The Patriots are losing two of their top three receivers from last year in Amendola and Brandin Cooks. Those two accounted for 200 targets. Edelman will not only miss the first four games, but is coming off of an ACL injury. Thankfully, Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan are still around; but who's the next guy that Brady is going to look to?

Two years ago, I would have thought that Malcolm Mitchell would have become one of Brady's go to guys. However, he hasn't been able to get on the field since Super Bowl LI. Phillip Dorsett has reportedly had a strong start to camp. Now that he has had a full offseason with the team, perhaps he will emerge as a legitimate threat. He showed some flashes last year. The Patriots also continue to be optimistic about Kenny Britt, and the impact he could have.

Then there's Cordarrelle Patterson. There are also reports indicating that Eric Decker may be joining the team. You just never know what to expect from wide receivers in their first year with the Patriots, though. For every Brandon LaFell, there's a Joey Galloway. For every Brandon Lloyd, there's a Chad Ochocinco.

To me the answer is simple, and it's not a wide receiver. It's James White. Over the past couple of seasons, White has emerged as a reliable target for Brady. Everybody remembers his iconic 14-catch performance in Super Bowl LI. Last year, he was fourth on the team in both catches (56) and targets (72). He was 10th in the league in receptions among running backs. He had at least one catch in all but one game last year, and recorded four catches or more eight times.

He may not be as precise of a route runner as Amendola, but White's quickness makes him great in open space. He was second on the team in yards after catch last season. This may come as a surprise to most, but White actually led the team in third down receptions last year with 20; more than Gronkowski and Amendola. Dion Lewis was the only running back who saw more snaps than White last year. With Lewis now gone, White should to see an increase in snaps, which should lead to more targets and receptions. 

The ability to routinely convert third downs is the mark of a successful offense in today's NFL. Since 2001, on average, more than half of the teams that had a top 10 third down offense, ended up in the postseason. When the Patriots are in need of a big conversion, there has to be multiple, reliable options for Brady.

Will the Patriots miss Cooks? Sure. Will the Patriots miss Amendola? Absolutely. I don't want to minimize Amendola's importance to this team the past five seasons. His contributions cannot be overstated, especially in the playoffs. However, with Gronkowski, Hogan, White and the eventual return of Edelman, this team is going to be just fine.

Follow me on Twitter @mcvay34

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