PHOENIX – Troy Brown had caught 101 passes in 2001 and 97 in 2002, so how would the New England Patriots compensate after losing the savvy slot receivers for the 2007 season?
Plug in Wes Welker, who averaged 112 receptions for the next six seasons – including 123 in 2009 and 122 in 2011. So what would the Patriots do after Welker signed with the Denver Broncos as a free agent during the 2013 offseason?
Plug in Julian Edelman, who caught 105 passes last season and added 92 receptions this season.
Edelman and Welker combined for six 100-plus catch performances over the past eight seasons in the "slot" machine that the Patriots' passing attack has become.
The Seahawks, the Patriots' opponent in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIX matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium, have not had a single 100-catch receiver in their 39-season history.
What's the secret to all this slot success for the Patriots? It's really no secret at all.
"I think the common element there is this guy named Tom Brady," Edelman said with a sly smile this week. "He's pretty good."
Added offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, "Well, I think you have to start with No. 12."
And there might be something to that simple answer, because Brady – the Patriots' No. 12 – did become the starter in 2001. That's when Troy Brown has his 101 receptions. And this season, Brady became the sixth quarterback in NFL history to pass for 50,000 yards.
But a closer look reveals the complexities of how the Patriots use their slot receivers.
On one snap, Edelman will line up directly behind the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski, so it's difficult to even see the 5-10, 200-pound slot receiver because of the sheer bulk of the Patriots' tight end.
On another snap, Edelman will go in motion from left to right, but then pop back to his left to duck behind Gronkowski.
On another snap, Edelman will be in the tight slot, with Gronkowski to his left.
On another snap, Edelman will be outside, with Danny Amendola in the slot. But at the snap, it's Edelman who darts into the slot area.
On another snap, Edelman is slotted on the right side. On yet another, he's on the right side only to motion into the slot on the left side.
And so on and so on. So much so, that the exercise for the defense becomes a pre-snap game of "Where's Julian?"
"We don't have magic plays," McDaniels said. "The players that line up in there deserve the credit for that, and we've had a lot of great players that play in there – starting with Troy, and then Wes and Julian. And I think one of the things we've always tried to do is, whatever the strength of our players are, we try to fit the offense to that."
Even with all that said, the conversation inevitably returns to Brady.
"Their quarterback is really good," Kris Richard said with a have-you-heard grin. But the former Seahawks cornerback who now coaches the defensive backs then added, "He understands coverage and leverage, is what it really comes down to. He knows where his wide receivers are going. He takes a look at the defense. He sees where you're aligned. And then he takes his calculated risks from there.
"He knows where he wants to go based on looks and certain tendencies."
And he does it in rapid-fire fashion.
"Tom gets the ball out quick, and slot receivers are usually the ones getting out of their breaks the quickest," said Richard Sherman, the Seahawks' All-Pro cornerback. "And they're usually the shorter routes."
Sometimes, those routes are only a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
"And they're usually the quicker reads, especially against the blitz," Sherman added. "They play against a lot of blitzing teams in their division – Buffalo, the Jets, Miami. The slot receivers are going to get a lot of action in those games, and I think a lot of times that's the focal point. People double-team Gronk. So now the slot receiver gets the lesser matchups."
The Seahawks have used three nickel backs this season – Jeremy Lane, Marcus Burley and Byron Maxwell. But Burley and Maxwell were alternative choices because Lane missed seven of the first eight games with a groin injury and then two more down the stretch with a glute injury. Moving the 6-1 Maxwell inside and replacing him at right corner with the 6-3 Tharold Simon allows the Seahawks to matchup with teams that have taller receivers. But against Edelman, Lane is probably the best option.
"What makes Jeremy a good nickel back is his tenacity and his confidence in his abilities," Richard said. "He's a guy that scraps. He scraps all the way. He battles. He embodies the message. If you knew you were going to a bar fight, you're going to bring Jeremy Lane."
And all those traits are needed in the slot, because there is so much coming at you and from so many different directions. And in the case of the Patriots, it's coming at you so quickly.
"Jeremy has grown in his maturation process over the years," Richard said. "So much to where now he's able to anticipate certain things and put his body into the places it needs to be."
But with Edelman and all the things the Patriots do with him, you certainly can't anticipate this being a one-Lane avenue.
"It's an across-the-board kind of thing," Richard said. "Whoever they put in the slot, wherever the matchup is, that's who you're going to see."
And that also could be one the Seahawks' linebackers in their nickel package – All-Pro middle man Bobby Wagner or long-limped outside 'backer K.J. Wright.
"With our linebackers and their ability to drop into coverage, they are remarkable," Richard said. "There are spots out there on the field that they absolutely have to be in in order for us to be successful and they're there. Those guys are huge and they absolutely fill in the holes."
And that's why Edelman isn't counting his receptions before he catches them.
"They do what they do, and what they do is very good," he said of the Seahawks' defense. "This team is a ball-hawking team. The speed and tempo they play with is fast."