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Tom Brady's tight spot

Posted by David Sabino  July 9, 2013 03:05 PM

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GronkBrady.jpgIt’s safe to say that in these parts there’s no current athlete—and few throughout history—more revered than Tom Brady. Entering his 14th season as a Patriot, Tom Terrific has ascended to Boston überstar status, something shared only with the legendary likes of Ted Williams, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Bobby Orr. Not only has Brady won championships and set NFL records, he became an accidental star, overcoming the adversity of being virtually ignored in the 2000 NFL Draft, then stepping in for an injured Drew Bledsoe to silence the din of critics, leading the Pats to their first Super Bowl title. For all he’s done in what’s surely a career that will be punctuated someday with a gold jacket and a trip to Canton, OH, Brady will likely face his biggest challenge in 2013.

It’s no surprise to anyone who’s watched the Pats this decade that Brady likes to throw to his tight ends. In fact, given the talent he’s had at his disposal he’d be crazy not to. But it hasn’t always been that way. Before 2010 Brady ranked no better than 14th in percentage of completions to tight ends, and in three seasons, fewer than one out of every eight of his passes went to tight ends. However since 2010 when the Pats drafted both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, a full third of Brady’s completions have gone to tight ends. In 2011 a staggering 41.9% of his successful passes ended up in the hands of one of his ends, signifying a full 10 percentage points above the second-highest ranked passer on the list, San Francisco’s Alex Smith (31.5%). And even with Gronkowski and Hernandez managing to play just a combined 21 of a possible 32 games in 2012, Brady still led the NFL in passing to his tight ends (28.9%), edging Dallas’ Tony Romo (28.7%).

So with all of that productivity at tight end, it’s hard to fault New England’s brain trust for going all in on the team’s strength, and basically jettisoning the entire wide receiving corps (including Wes Welker who had 80 more catches during his New England tenure than any other NFL receiver) for one that’s younger, cheaper, and more interchangeable. But now Gronkowski is a candidate for the PUP list (which would disqualify him from the season’s first six games) following a spate of offseason surgeries (first on his infected broken arm, then on his sore back) and Hernandez now just a tragic memory to the team and cautionary tale to all athletes. That leaves Brady with virtually no experience on the outside and a blue collar veteran tight end corps in Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui that in 10 combined NFL season has accounted for the same number of TDs (15) that Gronkowski has in a combined 16 career games against AFC East opponents alone. Rookies Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford are also in the mix, but even all of them combined will have trouble matching even a fraction of the output from Gronk/Hernandez.

Here’s how Brady has utilized his tight ends over the years: PatsTE.jpg

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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