There's no prizes for guessing who will be the leading receivers in New England this year. Rob Gronkowski is a generational talent at tight end. A receiving optoin with a more impressive skill set than future hall of famer Tony Gonzalez. Julian Edelman isn't a generational talent or one of the best receivers in the league, but he has proven his worth to the Patriots over recent seasons. Edelman is extremely difficult to cover regardless of where he lines up and has an established rapport with Tom Brady.
Gronkowski and Edelman are untouchable at the top. After them, Martellus Bennett is the favorite to be the team's third option. Bennett brings a new dimension to Bill Belichick's offense with his run-blocking ability but he is also a versatile and dangerous receiver.
It's at this point where the debate begins. Danny Amendola should be the favorite. Amendola restructured his contract in the offseason and didn't produce big numbers or stay healthy for 16 games last year. Amendola made a number of very impressive YAC plays and adjustments at the catch point last year though, so expecting his performance to suffer a steep decline as he hits 30 years of age would be foolish. One of the main advantages working in Amendola's favor is his comfort in Josh McDaniels' offense. Amendola has been in New England for three years now, his main competitors for playing time only arrived this year.
Veterans Chris Hogan and Nate Washington arrived in free agency after disappointing seasons with their respective teams in 2015. Malcolm Mitchell, a 24-year old rookie out of Georgia, was a fourth-round pick in the 2016 draft. After Mitchell, Hogan and Washington, the Patriots still have Aaron Dobson competing for a roster spot alongside Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper. Considering their varying levels of talent and Amendola's established standard, it's hard to pick out one receiver who should beat the former St. Louis Rams player out during preseason and training camp.
Even if one of those receivers does beat out Amendola, he will then be competing for targets with returning veteran Dion Lewis or James White who figure to see plenty of targets coming out of the backfield. The non-Gronkowski, Edelman, Bennett, running back option in New England shouldn't have much fantasy value.
Yet, despite the uncertainty, despite the impending four games of Jimmy Garoppolo, despite the obviously small target share, Chris Hogan has become a relatively popular name in fantasy drafts. Since June 1st in MFL-style leagues(MFL10s, MFL25s, etc), Hogan is the 58th receiver off the board. For the sake of comparison, Amendola is the 83rd receiver going off the board, Mitchell is the 78th and Washington is the 98th. Each of the other competitors for the fourth receiving role in the Patriots offense is being treated like a late-round flier whereas Hogan is considered a priority option who will go in the middle rounds.
This makes no sense on the surface. In a best ball format it's especially befuddling. Hogan is being selected ahead of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, Rishard Matthews, Will Fuller, Pierre Garcon, Terrance Williams, Tyler Boyd, Kendall Wright and Ted Ginn. Each of those receivers either carry value as a deep threat or figure to see greater target shares in starting roles.
Football Guys rankers are proving to be divided on Hogan's value. He ranks 69th on average, but the majority of rankers have left him unranked. Three staffers have ranked Hogan in their top 60 receivers, Jason Wood has him highest at 48th while Jeff Haseley and Bruce Hammond both rank Hogan as the 58th receiver.
On the surface it's inexplicable. Hogan isn't a deep threat, nor does he project to carry a significant role in the offense. How does a receiver with limited big-play potential produce enough to be relevant on a small number of targets. There must be something beneath the surface that can explain the attraction. The first thing we must figure out is if Hogan is quietly an effective deep threat, sneakily athletic you might say.
Hogan averages 11 yards per reception for his career. He averaged 12.5 yards per reception last year with six 20+ yard receptions and two 40+ yard receptions. Tyrod Taylor is a much more accurate deep passer than Tom Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo. For Hogan's longest reception last season, the receiver didn't pull away from the cornerback covering him. Instead, he just about got in behind slot cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, one of the worst cornerbacks to play regularly over recent years, and relied on Taylor to deliver a perfect pass over his head. Taylor managed to do so, allowing Hogan to reel in a 46-yard reception.
In appearance, the former Buffalo Bills receiver isn't your typical Belichickian receiver. Hogan measures 6'1" and 220 lbs. Despite not looking the part, Hogan is more of a quick, fluid receiver than an explosive vertical threat.
Coincidentally, Hogan's second-longest reception from last season came against his new team. The receiver accelerated past the press coverage the defensive back across from him was attempting to play before pulling away from him down the sideline. On initial viewing this is a play that should spark a lot of enthusiasm. However, it must be noted that the defender failing to cover or run with Hogan is actually strong safety Patrick Chung. Someone who should never have been put in that position in the first place.
Bad teams tend to sign players who play well against them. This isn't a practice we associate with the the New England Patriots but it's hard to ignore that he had his most productive day against the Patriots last season.
In that game, Hogan caught another pass for 31 yards. That 31-yard reception wasn't of any significance for evaluating Hogan though as it came as a result of a blown coverage from the Patriots. Hogan's next longest reception of the season was also the result of a blown coverage.
Against the Miami Dolphins, Hogan caught a 38-yard touchdown. It came as a result of a blown coverage as the cornerback allowed Hogan to run free down the sideline on his own. The deep safety was nowhere close to being in position to covering for him. Hogan only caught two touchdowns last season, the other was a two-yard score against the Tennessee Titans when he was schemed open on a pick play.
Expecting Hogan to stretch the field is expecting him to be someone who he has never been. Running routes downfield isn't the only way to create big plays. If you can't stretch the field, you need to be able to show off explosiveness and elusiveness with the ball in your hands. That's not who Hogan is.
On this play from the Patriots' other matchup with the Bills, Hogan is schemed open with motion behind the line of scrimmage. He has a step on the defensive back pursuing him but is too slow to transition from catching the ball to turning upfield. This puts the defensive back back in position to close on him. Hogan has no burst of acceleration to outrun the defender's angle, meaning that he is stopped well short of the pylon despite his desperate lunge forward at the end of the play.
If you can't take the top off the defense and you can't take advantage of space with the ball in your hands, you can't be productive on a small target share.
When Hogan was trying to earn a roster spot with the Miami Dolphins a few yaers back, he earned the nickname 7-11. We know this because the Dolphins were on Hard Knocks at the time. 7-11 came about because Hogan was said to always be open. The receiver thrives at running underneath routes, showing off the requisite quickness and deception to find soft spots in zone coverage and beat man coverage. Although that talent earned him plaudits from his teammates, it didn't earn him a roster spot in Miami. In Buffalo, Hogan showed off some of those traits but he proved to be a complementary receiver rather than a burgeoning star once he started regularly working against top talents on opposing teams.
This doesn't appear to be a Wes Welker-like case where Welker's individual talent was being overlooked by his previous team. Hogan was legitimately the third or fourth-best receiver on the Buffalo roster when you include tight ends as receivers. He'd be even lower if you considered running backs. Hogan is the type of player who will expose fring roster talents but then be exposed by starting caliber players at this level. Therefore, we shouldn't put too much stock in the optimism that is emanating from his performances in offseason practices.
It's possible that the Patriots are attracted to Hogan's ability to adjust to coverages. The Patriots value that more than other teams because of the type of offense they run. Even if they do, Amendola has already proven that he can execute what is asked of him in the offense while Hogan will be trying to develop an understanding with Brady during a season when he will be sideliend for the first month after the preseason. That disruption is going to be a bigger problem for Hogan, Nate Washington and Malcolm Mitchell than it is for the carry-over receivers from last season. Martellus Bennett should have some issues too but fewer considering his position and level of ability.
Hogan is a receiver who obviously has his admirers. In an ideal situation he will be the Patriots' second starting wide receiver, putting him on the field in their base set with two tight ends, two receivers and one running back. Even if he takes over that role, he will still be Brady's least prioritized target in an offense that seems destined to become more run-oriented.