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Super Bowl LI: Charting the unusual route to becoming a Patriots receiver

HOUSTON — If you would like to become a job candidate for catching passes from Tom Brady, put together a resume that won't possibly get you noticed.

Like this: Stop growing as soon as you're tall enough to ride a roller coaster. Spend four years not playing football at Penn State before transferring to Division I-AA Monmouth and start eight games on defense. Bounce like a rubber ball among the practice squads of the 49ers, Giants and Dolphins, and underwhelm the Bills so they won't re-sign you.

That's the route Chris Hogan ran to becoming a Patriots receiver.

Julian Edelman was a 5-foot-10 quarterback at Kent State.

Rookie Malcolm Mitchell was ignored out of Georgia until the fourth round of last year's draft.

When it comes to surrounding its star quarterback with weapons, New England is more willing to take more fliers than Delta.

Hasn't this always been the case? Whether it's Danny Amendola, Wes Welker, Troy Brown, David Givens, Aaron Dobson, Daniel Graham, Jabar Gaffney, Troy Brown, Deion Branch or Brandon Tate, the Patriots shop for receivers in the clearance aisle.

Sure, Randy Moss set an NFL record with 23 touchdown receptions from Brady in 2007 and eclipsed 1,000 yards in three of his four seasons in Foxborough. Chad Johnson? Player, please! He averaged one catch per game in 2011.

Perhaps that's why former Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson declared the Patriots' current crop of pass catchers "system" guys.

"When you see guys that fail and play for other teams at the receiver position, they can go to New England and excel, and everybody goes, 'Oh my God, Oh my God, these receivers are top of the game,' " Johnson said. "Well, they couldn't excel with other teams because of the system. If they were on other teams right now, they probably wouldn't be on the 53-man roster."

It's easy to understand why Johnson, a 6-foot-4 No. 1 overall pick out of USC by the Jets in 1996, might think that. But those kinds of comments keep the chips on the shoulders of the Patriots receivers.

"I'm not worried about what people are saying," Edelman said. "I'm worried about what people are doing. Week in and week out, we ignore the noise."

In the case of Edelman, well, the guy has proven he's a heck of a receiver. He has averaged 89 receptions, 956 yards and five touchdowns for four seasons. When the Patriots last played in the Super Bowl, for the 2014 season against the Seahawks, he led the Patriots with 109 receiving yards on nine catches. His late 3-yard touchdown reception proved to be the winner. His biggest play might have been a clutch 21-yard catch on third and 14 when Edelman was struck helmet-to-helmet by safety Kam Chancellor.

"We're just guys who can get open, catch the ball and play within the system," Edelman said.

It really is as simple as that. No matter where the Patriots find their receivers, they all are overachievers who run good routes, understand where they're supposed to be and make plays. Brady's accuracy doesn't demand they get a lot of separation or have a huge reach. All of them know how to take a hit.

"They do a really good job of getting away from defenders," Falcons rookie safety and former Gator standout Keanu Neal said. "They have a lot of grit. They're just ballplayers."

Hogan, who had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers, was a lacrosse midfielder who led Penn State with 29 goals as a senior to become a first-team All-Eastern College Athletic Conference selection.

At I-AA Monmouth, Hogan started eight games at cornerback. He caught only 12 passes, but three were for touchdowns.

Last offseason, the Patriots signed Hogan, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet the Bills decided wasn't worth matching. He responded by leading the AFC in average yards per catch (17.9).

"Chris has been incredible in what he has added to our team," Brady said of Hogan, who had 38 catches for 680 yards and four touchdowns. "Playing for Buffalo and playing against them, we knew how talented he was."

Mitchell has gotten progressively better. The Patriots picked up Cardinals castoff Michael Floyd, who had a 1,000-yard season with Arizona in 2013, after he was put on waivers in December after a DUI arrest. Amendola will play Super Bowl LI against the Falcons on Sunday practically in his back yard of Woodlands, Texas, a suburb of Houston.

But like all the Patriots' unheralded receivers, he's right at home in New England.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

Super Bowl LI: Charting the unusual route to becoming a Patriots receiver 02/01/17 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2017 12:28am]
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