After two years catching passes from Tom Brady for the New England Patriots, Brandon LaFell signed with the Bengals to try to ease the losses of both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, allowing Cincinnati not to go into the the draft in desperation mode at the position.
While LaFell was pretty good in 2014 for Bill Belichick's team, including a touchdown reception in Super Bowl XLIX, he took a step back last season after missing the first five games with a foot injury. He never quite returned to the same level that he was at during his first year with the Pats, and in response, he was cut in the winter with one more year remaining in his deal. LaFell will have a different role with Cincinnati now that he no longer needs to be his team's sole deep threat.
LaFell's first game in 2015 was against the Jets in Foxborough, but it was pretty rough. The former Panthers wide receiver was clearly rusty as he returned from injury, catching only two of his eight targets for 25 yards and dropping the other six, on a game that saw Brady throw the ball 54 times.
It was clearly frustrating for Patriots fans. New England was 5-0 prior to the game and only a huge fourth quarter by Brady saved the day, but LaFell wasn't the only one to blame. The rest of the receiving corps added five more drops.
It was a gritty performance by the men in blue, and LaFell showed constantly that he could get open against a good secondary that included Darrelle Revis and Buster Skrine. Of course the Jets' strength was and still is the defensive line, but with no other deep threat, LaFell had to go against the top guys.
Overall, LaFell's numbers against Gang Green don't jump off the page. According to Pro-Football Reference he has 17 catches in 28 targets and 224 yards at a 13.18 clip and no touchdowns in five games. But, his second meeting of the 2015 season with the Jets in East Rutherford saw LaFell rarely involved with only one catch for 19 yards and a carry for 9 on a reverse play. He wasn't targeted any more despite both Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola being out. That was a game in which the Patriots lost in overtime and a win would have given them home field advantage throughout the playoffs, which in fact ended up being important. LaFell was apparently still dealing with foot issues, but that game started a downward trend for the Houston native and he never recovered his role in Belichick's offense.
His first year in Boston was different with LaFell being more involved in both wins for the Patriots against the Jets. The Jets were a worse team in Rex Ryan's last cup of tea with them, but New England only beat them at home due to a blocked field goal and on the road grabbed a 17-16 win.
The Jets secondary was really mediocre in 2014, featuring cornerbacks Marcus Williams and Kyle Wilson, and also rookie safety Calvin Pryor alongside injured second-year corner Dee Milliner (who was cut by the team last weekend). Revis was with the Patriots at the time.
LaFell had a nice catch on a play action fake that went for 23 yards, beating cornerback Phillip Adams badly on an in route.
In their Week 16 clash, LaFell was a key factor in the win that gave the Patriots a first-round bye in the playoffs. He caught seven passes for 64 yards on 10 targets. He caught two passes in the red zone in New England's last two scoring drives, but also a pass intended for him in the fourth quarter was picked off after the Jets' pass rush got to Brady. LaFell tipped it trying to keep the play alive but instead fell straight into the corner's hands. The Pats' defense would eventually bail them out, forcing a long field goal attempt that was no good.
Overall it is hard to predict what LaFell's role on Sunday will be, as his situation is different than in 2014 when the Jets' secondary was awful and also in 2015, when he was struggling through that foot injury. He won't have to be the main deep threat for the Bengals either, so he could see more work underneath, which betters suits his strengths.
Without Tyler Eifert, the Jets will be able to focus more on A.J. Green, so LaFell - and Tyler Boyd - will have to take advantage of that to open up the field for Cincinnati's offense. Hopefully he resembles more his 2014 self than last season's aberration.