FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Needing a deep receiving threat, the New England Patriots signed Brandon Lloyd.
They ended up with an acrobat.
“He moves his body in ways that most people can’t,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said Friday. “He makes catches that make your jaw drop.”
Such as his grab on Tom Brady’s pass that he caught at waist level while racing down the right sideline Sunday night. It gained 53 yards in a 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Or others Lloyd made earlier in the season, twisting his body while airborne and managing to get both feet inbounds.
He’s made 67 passes catches — some remarkable, some routine — and has two games left to get the 10 he needs to match his career high. He set it in 2010 with Denver, where current New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was head coach.
Lloyd’s first chance comes Sunday when the Patriots (10-4) visit the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12). New England wraps up the regular season at home against the Miami Dolphins.
The 10-year veteran brought the ability to catch long passes that the Patriots had hoped Chad Johnson could contribute last year. But in his only season with the Patriots, Johnson (known as Chad Ochocinco then) struggled to learn the offense and made just 15 catches.
Lloyd had 10 receptions in one game this season, against the 49ers. He also set a career-high with 190 yards receiving in that game and his big play set up the touchdown that completed the Patriots comeback from a 28-point deficit and tied the score at 31.
“He’s had a good season. He’s been running very good routes,” Brady said. “Brandon had a lot of opportunity the other night and really took advantage.”
Just two weeks earlier, he caught only one pass. The Patriots beat the Dolphins 23-16, but there was talk that Lloyd’s role was diminishing.
“All the games are different,” he said. “The games plans are different. The matchups are different. I prepare every week the same. It’s just the way the games shake out sometimes.”
That speculation disappeared the following week in a 42-14 rout of the Houston Texans when Lloyd had seven catches for 89 yards. He was wide open down the middle for a 37-yard TD grab, and also was near enough to recover a fumble by teammate Danny Woodhead in the end zone for another touchdown.
“You want to be downfield blocking and keeping some of those late hits off the ball carrier and being around just in case the ball pops out,” Lloyd said.
Gregory saw his athleticism while with the San Diego Chargers, where he spent his other six pro seasons. He was in the same division while Lloyd was with the Broncos in 2009 and 2010 and the first four games in 2011 before he was traded to the St. Louis Rams.
“You could be in good position” covering him, Gregory said, “but the ball could be thrown in a place where he can move his body to go get it and it kind of takes you out of the play.”
That athleticism was there when Lloyd was on the track team at Blue Springs High School in Missouri. His leaping ability was evident when he competed in hurdles races and the high jump, clearing the bar at a personal-best of 7 feet, 2 inches.
“I was a high jumper in high school and college,” he said, “so that shows how much agility that I do have and I think that all factors in.”
Shifting his body to soar over the bar is impressive. Doing it while trying to elude a cornerback, leaping for a pass and staying inbounds is a greater challenge.
“I know when I’m running out of room,” he said. “I just try to get my feet down secure the catch and go down.”
It’s a challenge Lloyd thinks about a lot.
“I think about the spatial awareness that I want to have when I’m catching the ball, the positions that I’m in,” he said. “Those are the things that I think about and I visualize in my personal time.”
His catches have been particularly important because of injuries that have sidelined the Patriots star tight ends.
Rob Gronkowski has missed four games with a broken left forearm but practiced on a limited basis all week and is one of 19 Patriots listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Aaron Hernandez missed six games this season with an ankle injury but has played in the last four with 28 catches in that span, 10 of them against the 49ers.
But none of those catches were as acrobatic as some Lloyd makes.
“The first thing we said when he got here was he was almost like a worm,” safety Devin McCourty said. “He could just torque different positions to make some catches.”
At least McCourty was prepared to face that in practice. His twin brother Jason is a cornerback for the Tennessee Titans and had played against Lloyd.
“My brother texted me. He was like, ‘he’s good,’ ” McCourty said. “He said, ‘not many people talk about him but we played them and it was just tough to cover him all game.’ There are definitely other good receivers in this league, but I don’t think anyone that’s like him.”
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