First off, a disclaimer: I swear this post is only partially influenced by fantasy football.
Patriots rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld built up a bunch of hype with his performance in the preseason and training camp. Not misguided hype either, as Sudfeld has the talent to be a very productive NFL player. The guy is 6'7", athletic and has good hands; at the very least he has the ability to be a red zone target immediately.
This is why the tight end's usage Sunday was so disappointing to me. Despite an obvious and dire need for another receiving target to step up for Tom Brady, the rookie was nearly invisible in his pro debut. Sudfeld did not record a catch Sunday and was targeted only once in his 20 snaps.
That particular target resulted in an interception, as the ball tipped off of Sudfeld's fingertips into the hands of Buffalo cornerback Justin Rogers. However, it's hard to pin all the blame on Sudfeld, who had to make a diving attempt at a slightly errant pass from Tom Brady. Sudfeld did stumble slightly coming out of his break, but it's hard to blame him for attempting to make what would have been a highlight reel worthy catch. It seemed like more of a tough break for the rookie than anything else.
Tough break or not, Tom Brady never looked Sudfeld's way the rest of the game. In fact, Brady only attempted 3 passes to his tight ends all game, with his only completion being a five yard pass to Michael Hoomanawanui on 3rd and 11. Yikes.
Perhaps Sudfeld was already on a short leash due to his fumble in the preseason, but it's hard to argue against giving the rookie more chances in the second half. The Patriots offense was essentially limited to three playmakers (Danny Amendola, Julian Edelmen and Shane Vereen) and while their performances were borderline heroic, the offense was in dire need of another reliable target to step up all game. Tom Brady seemed hell-bent on making Kenbrell Thompkins that guy and targeted the rookie an eyepopping 14 times, including several when Thompkins was well covered. Thompkins struggles will surely be a talking point Monday on sports radio, as he only managed to bring in four of those passes.
Despite his struggles, Thompkins continued to get fed targets and snaps (87 snaps versus Sudfeld's 20). It's hard to comprehend how Thompkins continued to get so many opportunities while Sudfeld's one, bad luck play seemed to eliminate him from the team's plans. It's understood that young players will play a large role in this Patriots season. It's also should be understood that rookies will have their rough moments, but that its worth sheltering the occasional miscue to develop players with legitimate talent. Sudfeld absolutely fits that bill.
Sudfeld has shown that he absolutely has the ability to be a red zone target; why not utilize him on a day when the offense only converted on 2 of their 5 red zone opportunities? It's undeniable that the Pats offense will be much more formidable if Sudfeld can develop into a playmaker. Lets hope that they show enough patience to give him a chance to do so.