If you asked who has been the Patriots biggest breakout surprise of the preseason so far, the obvious choices are rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski who have defibrillated life back into the tight end position for New England. The dark horse candidate for the honor is second year wide receiver Brandon Tate.
Aside from Gronkowski, Tate was the lone bright spot for the New England Patriots in their third preseason game, a final second loss to the worst team in football, the St. Louis Rams. Tate announced his presence on the NFL scene loud and clear by returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
Tate has one of the most unique story’s of any player on the Patriots roster. He was widely considered a lock to become a first round NFL Draft selection when he entered his senior season at North Carolina. Tate’s jitterbug quickness and ability to explode through a seam made him the most electrifying kick and punt returner in all of college football. The road to super stardom in the NFL was paved for Tate until one punt return changed his fate forever. Tate tore his right ACL and MCL against Notre Dame and missed the final eight games of his senior season. The injury also caused him to slip to the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Tate’s ability as a kick returner comes as a shock to nobody, especially not the Patriots coaching staff that selected him in the third round (83rd overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft. Tate is the NCAA career leader in combined kick return yards with 3,523 yards. He also is the ACC’s all time leader in kickoff returns (109) and kickoff return yardage (2,688). The Patriots coaching staff took a chance on Tate and chose to take it slow with their investment. Tate began the 2009 season on the non-football injury list before being activated prior to Week 7. Tate’s return was cut short after suffering another knee injury in Week 9 that forced him to go on injured reserve.
Tate’s return fully healthy this season is expected to be an added bonus to New England’s group of wide receivers that includes Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and new rookie Taylor Price. Tate was viewed as both an elite return man and a legitimate NFL caliber wide receiver prior to the injury, and set out to prove he belonged in the league this season.
Tate drew rave reviews from the fans, the media, and the coaching staff throughout training camp, and the major question marks and expectations were laid out for Tate entering the exhibition schedule. Could Tate be an impact player for the Patriots this season? Could he become a game-changing factor in the return game?
As Tate sprinted past St. Louis defenders and into the end zone on Thursday night, he answered those critical questions.
Tate was the deep man at the goal line with Sammy Morris alongside serving as the up back and lead blocker. The kick came to Tate at the 3 and in the blink of an eye, Tate was alone in the open field. He took the return up the middle and then, reading the gap perfectly, shot through it cutting to his right and was off to the races.
“My teammates were the ones blocking so without them it wouldn’t have been possible,” Tate said, “I kept saying, ‘I’m ready…this is going to be the one,’ so all the credit has to go to my teammates.”
“Every time I get to go out there and play, I try to put my best foot out there,” he said. “I go out there and compete every play and just play hard.”
Tate finished with three kickoff returns and one punt return for a total of 162 return yards.
As Patriots fans watched Tate gallop into the end zone with Tom Brady and Randy Moss celebrating on the sideline, the next question for Tate was hatched. The only question left for him to answer is: Can he become a complement to Moss and Welker in the offense?
Tate played with the first-team offense against St. Louis, lining up both in the slot and split out wide working alongside Moss and Welker. Tate caught two balls for 17 yards in the contest against the Rams.
“It felt good to play with whoever is out there,” Tate said of lining up with the likes of Brady, Moss and Welker. “It doesn’t matter who it is. I just thank the coach for giving me a chance to play.”
The breakout surprise of training camp in my opinion, Tate has established himself as a factor in the return game, and is beginning to carve out a role in the offense as well. Tate is a testament to French philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s saying ”what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.” Tate is making progress game by game, and is developing into the star everyone believed he would ultimately become right before our eyes.