Brandon LaFell has just three games under his belt in 2015. STEVEN SENNE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
By Michael Whitmer GLOBE STAFF NOVEMBER 15, 2015
FOXBOROUGH — If Brandon LaFell had been healthy enough to participate in training camp and the preseason, based on his workload to date, the calendar would read August, not November.
But LaFell wasn’t healthy, missing just about everything after having offseason surgery on his foot. No OTAs, no training camp, no preseason games. Nothing for the first five games of the regular season, because he was on the physically unable to perform list.
Now he’s back, having played in the Patriots’ last three games — his first three games — and increasing his contribution across the board every time he’s taken the field. Despite coach Bill Belichick saying that’s unlikely to continue, the Patriots (8-0) could use another big game from LaFell on Sunday, when they visit the Giants (5-4) at MetLife Stadium.
Getting LaFell fully up to speed would give the league’s second-ranked offense another option. He’s the tallest and biggest receiver the Patriots have, at 6 feet 3 inches and 210 pounds, serves as the team’s best deep threat, and is still finding his comfort zone after missing so much time.
“I think I’m real close,” said LaFell. “There was a long week for us when we had a Thursday night game and we had a couple of extra practices. I think I’m getting back to getting my wind, not having to come out after three or four plays, being able to go the whole series.
“It’s different when you’ve got a guy in front of you, pressing you every play, hitting you down the field, getting tackled.
“I know I’ve got two guys behind me, Aaron Dobson and Keshawn Martin. Those guys are hungry, and the last thing I want to do is come out and let those guys get some of my plays. So I just stay hungry and try to stay out there as long as I can.”
Since being activated from the PUP list to the 53-man active roster Oct. 24, LaFell has been a key member of the passing offense. He’s been targeted 24 times over the past three games; only Rob Gronkowski (30) and Julian Edelman (26) have more in that span.
Admittedly, LaFell’s debut wasn’t pretty: six drops against the Jets, with just two receptions for 25 yards. Then he had four receptions for 47 yards in the win over Miami, followed by five catches for 102 yards in last week’s win over Washington, highlighted by a 48-yard deep ball from Tom Brady.
It was LaFell’s fifth 100-yard receiving game of his career, which is now in its sixth year. He had a pair of 100-yard games last year during his first season with the Patriots, including a career-best 124-yard game on 11 receptions against Chicago.
“It’s definitely a process for him and what he’s going through,” said Belichick. “He’s gaining on it each day, but it’ll take a while.
“For any player like that, even a player that’s been playing that missed some time and came back, there’s a little bit of a reacclimation process, with themselves, for their confidence, and with the communication and execution with their teammates.”
So how close to full strength and full speed is LaFell?
“Closer than he was last week,” said Belichick. “Way closer than he was two weeks, three weeks ago. I think it’s improving each week. And I don’t think it’s going to show up in the stat sheet — it’s going to go 3 [catches] for 29 [yards], 6 for 50, 8 for 96, 11 for 142. I’m not saying that.
“Each game is different, each opportunity for a player is different. But in terms of overall level of execution, you play 50 plays, I think progressively you’re going to see more good ones out of those 50 over a period of time.”
LaFell’s snap count has risen by game, as well. He was on the field for 48 plays against the Jets, 59 against the Dolphins, and 60 against Washington.
No matter how much experience a receiver has in the NFL, though, it takes time to go from non-participant to making a contribution, and it’s usually done in practice. LaFell didn’t have that luxury, practicing for the first time Oct. 21, the first day he was eligible, and playing in a game four days later.
With each practice — with each rep in practice — the timing and rhythm and route-running skills become more polished. But there are things receivers need to go through in order to be ready to play. “Live bullets,” Edelman calls them.
“Just seeing flashes of patterns and things,” said Edelman. “Processing information at a high speed, seeing the ball come at you, that’s all the stuff you gain in practice.”
Added fellow receiver Danny Amendola: “He’s been working hard for a long time to get back. Not necessarily training camp or preseason, but he’s been doing his own work with the trainers, trying to get his body ready for football. He’s done a great job with that.”
Getting the body ready for football is a key element, and part of that is what would take the longest to get fully comfortable about playing again, at least for Amendola.
“Getting hit, the physicality of playing each play, blocking, getting your body right to take the hits of a game,” Amendola said. “Usually it takes a little bit of time to get acclimated with what a real game has in store for you.”
LaFell, Brady, Amendola, Edelman, and Gronkowski could be in line for a big game on Sunday, with the Giants ranking 31st against the pass and giving up 308 yards per game. The Giants have a league-low nine sacks through nine games, opposing quarterbacks are completing 66.8 percent of their passes, and six receivers have had 100-yard games. Two came in the game at New Orleans, when the Giants allowed Drew Brees to throw for 505 yards and seven touchdowns.
Maybe there’s not a better team for LaFell to be facing.
“I think we’ll see a guy who just continues to get better each week,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “Certainly, if you miss all that time in the offseason and training camp, you need a little time to make up for that.
“But as you saw last week, there are a lot of things that he does well and can help us with on offense.”
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.