Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tight Fit | by Jay

Reading the PT post below, it struck me how young our group of returning wide receivers are. You've got Grimes, a junior, and then three sophomores (we've got it on good authority that Chase Anastasio, contrary to what was previously reported, isn't going to return for a fifth year). While we're replacing more overall production at other positions (notably quarterback), no other position group of returners on the team is as young.

This got me thinking about the role of John Carlson in the offense next season. In the Sugar Bowl, Carlson was sparsely used in the passing game, and he caught just one lone pass all game long. Most of the time he was lined up next to Sam Young as an extra blocker on that side of the line. But next year, we can ill afford to keep him in to block.

In fact, it's Carlson, not David Grimes, who returns as the team's leading receiver. Despite missing most of three games with an injury, Carlson had nearly as many catches as Darius Walker, and finished third on the team in reception yardage. Since we're breaking in a new quarterback and a (mostly) new running game, Carlson is one of the few returning stalwarts Charlie can count on. It's quite possible that when Charlie draws up the offensive blueprints for '07, it will be Carlson, not one of the unproven receivers, who becomes the first or second option in the passing game.

There is some precedent for this. You probably remember a tight end for the Patriots by the name of Ben Coates. (If you played fantasy football in the mid-90s, you definitely remember Coates). Ben Coates was an unheralded fifth-round draft pick out of tiny Livingstone College, and in his first couple of years in the pros he was an afterthought in the Patriots offense. In 1993, the known TE-loving coach Bill Parcells took over the Pats and installed a young tight end coach by the name of Charlie Weis. The Pats' receiving corps wasn't much to speak of (Vincent Brisby? Michael Timpson?), and Coates vaulted from afterthought to the center of attention. Charlie explains (from "No Excuses"):

[In 1993] I had the opportunity to work with two very good tight ends -- Marv Cook, a fifth-year veteran and Pro Bowler, and a talented third-year guy named Ben Coates. Marv started twelve games for us in '93 and ended up catching twenty-two passes. Ben made only four starts, but led the team with fifty-three receptions and had our second-longest catch that year on a fifty-four-yard touchdown. The difference between them was that Marv was a short-to-intermediate receiver, whereas Ben was more of a three-level receiver -- short, intermediate, and deep. We threw a number of deep balls to Ben.

Standing six feet five inches, Coates was a long strider. Long striders usually aren't very fast, but when Ben got going, he'd run faster. Long striders also tend to have problems with the short-to-intermediate routes because it's harder for them to get in and out of breaks than it is for someone with shorter legs, but Ben learned how to use his body to get open. He would push off and rarely get penalized by the officials for doing it. He also had very dependable hands. He clicked with Bledsoe, and Drew would always look to him.

After Ben took over as the starting tight end in 1994, his catches skyrocketd to ninety-six, which at the time was the most by any tight end in NFL history. He made the first of many Pro Bowls.
When the Pats drafted Terry Glenn and acquired Shawn Jefferson the passing game started becoming a little more egalitarian, but even so, Coates was the primary or secondary option for Bledsoe for a long time.

As it pertains to John Carlson, the Coates antecedent could be instructive. We know Carlson fits the mold of a three-level receiver; we know he's got some wheels; and we know he's got exceptional hands. (For a quick refresher, take a look at this highlight reel). As with the '93 Pats, we've got a situation where our best receiver happens to be our tight end, and knowing Charlie's penchant for playing to his team's strengths, John Carlson might be an even bigger target this coming season.