In a matchup that invariably centers around two players -- Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- we can honestly say this was the most surprising thing we read in the days leading up to Sunday's Patriots-Broncos game: Denver's future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey called New England's newest deep threat Brandon Lloyd "the best athlete in the NFL."
Not to take anything away from Lloyd, who has a knack for making the acrobatic catch look routine, but you could give us 50 guesses and he'd never cross our lips. But hey, Bailey would know. He's in his 14th season and he's seen plenty of great receivers over that span. And that includes battling Lloyd on a daily basis when both played for the Broncos from 2009-2011.
“One thing about him is, he’s probably the most gifted athlete in the game," Bailey said of Lloyd, according to the Denver Post's Lindsay Jones. "Nobody has better body control than this guy, and hands. He’s about as good as they come athletically,” Bailey said. “I’ve got to remember that and account for that. He’s going to be a tough challenge for all of us.”
In a story Jones wrote in July 2011, she recounts those epic training camp battles, something Lloyd recalled Wednesday when speaking to reporters.
"There were good battles," he said via ESPNBoston.com. "And like I said, I learned a lot from him, from just a technique standpoint, catching, finishing the play, because Champ's one of the only cornerbacks I've gone against that the play was never over. You can even catch the ball, and if you're not bringing it in and protecting it, he'll find a way to get it out."
Lloyd signed with the Patriots this offseason and was reunited with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, his coach in Denver and later St. Louis. Lloyd was supposed to give Brady the downfield target Chad Ochocinco never managed to do last season. Ochocinco's struggles are well documented -- 15 catches, one touchdown in 2011 -- and Lloyd has already surpassed that. He has 25 catches in four games, including his first touchdown grab against the Bills last week (it's awesome if only for the huge smile on Lloyd's face mid-catch).
Despite Lloyd's relative success, he knows receptions will be hard to come by with Bailey lining up in front of him.
"Champ is very talented when it comes to his film study and how he plays out there," he said. "I'm sure the coaching staff is going to do a good job mixing up the routes and combinations that we're doing out there on him."
Former Pats linebacker turned ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi thinks coach Bill Belichick will game plan around Bailey. He's that good.
"So if (Bailey's) on Lloyd, I wouldn't expect a lot of targets for Lloyd in the game," Bruschi said Thursday. "If there is anywhere to target in the defensive backfield, it's the safety position -- Mike Adams and Rahim Moore. I know Moore has had his struggles. Those are the types of matchups you look for on your inside receivers. That's where this defense looks a little vulnerable."
This is where Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski come in.