Bear with me here, I’m about to ignore everything I’ve ever written about this year’s draft for the New England Patriots.
My blueprint for a successful draft has been pretty consistent since the free agency rush subsided: Trade down, spend three of their first four picks on the defensive front seven, nab a tight end and running back for good measure, and pick one or two of those patented “Bill-Belichick-drafts-one-or-two-players-you’ve-never-heard-of” types with lower athleticism and higher game IQ.
Wide receiver hasn’t even been a consideration. With the re-signing of Julian Edelman and the acquisition of Brandon LaFell, the depth chart is now pretty full up. Danny Amendola is looking to impress in his first fully healthy season in New England. Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and Kenbrell Thompkins are primed to make the leap in their second season, with Dobson, especially, looking like an impact maker. And while Mark Harrison spent the season on the NFI list, his size/speed combo has some thinking he could solve the Patriots’ need for a move tight end.
If we take into account special teams captain Matthew Slater, and practice squad players Greg Orton and Reggie Dunn, that’s 10 wide receivers that will be competing for a spot in training camp. It would seem silly to spend a high draft pick on another rookie wideout.
After talking about the Draft with a friend of mine who’s a Carolina Panthers fan (and seriously, if you’re stressed out about your team, go find a Panthers fan. You’ll feel much better), I felt a slight pang of jealousy. This is, by all accounts, one of the best wide receiver classes in draft history. Why should we be excluded from the fun? And (un)fortunately, my jealousy lead me straight to YouTube and DraftBreakdown, where I consumed wide receiver footage for hours.
And now I’m hooked.
I’m not saying it’s the best idea to draft a wide receiver with their first pick. What I am saying is that it’s entirely within the realm of reason, and frankly, even if it wasn’t, Bill Belichick defies reason because he’s smarter than we all are.
So if the Patriots were to draft a wideout, what would they be looking for?
Building the Perfect Wideout/The Huge WR Myth
Nothing frustrates me more than Patriots fans clamoring for FSU’s Kelvin Benjamin. Nothing.
That’s not a knock on Benjamin as a prospect. A smart team will look at his 6’5, 240 frame and put him in a situation where he can be used sparingly until he refines his technique. Because for all of his dynamite athleticism, Benjamin is uber-raw. Benjamin’s tape reveals poor awareness of the field, a tendency to catch with his body rather than put his considerable catch radius to good use, poor route-running, and, sometimes, a lack of motor. All that can be fixed with good coaching in a few seasons, and, if so, Benjamin could be a special receiver some day.
But two things:
1) Tom Brady has never needed huge receivers to succeed.
2) The Patriots don’t have that much time to wait.
Before you protest, I do think Tom Brady has at least three more MVP-caliber seasons in him, even if he is nearing 40. But, even if the Patriots have more than a three-year window, they’re still competing with the Denver Broncos, and a horrifyingly tough Seattle/San Francisco duo out West. If the Pats want another ring for Brady, they gotta hop to it.
Back to that first point. Think of all the great receivers that Tom Brady has had: names like Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch, David Givens, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, and, yes, Julian Edelman.
Of those 8 names, only 1 (Moss) was taller than 6’0. And Moss was never exactly a big bully who could only go deep or jump over cornerbacks. He had perfect footwork and agility, and was one of the great route-runners of his generation.
It’s that last point that’s so important should the Patriots draft a wide receiver. Size isn’t the issue. The receiver needs to have great hands, footwork and be a precise route-runner. Tom Brady has never been the type of QB to just chuck the ball downfield and hope a receiver can win a jumpball. What Tom Brady does extremely well is dominate the pace of a game with short-intermediate routes, and his expert awareness of his receivers on the field. The perfect wide receiver is one who can flourish in the slot as well as on the outside, with the agility to create separation in the short game, and the speed to break away in the occasional deep pass. Most importantly, he needs to run his routes and catch what’s thrown his way.
So who fits that description?
I’m ruling out Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans here, for obvious reasons. It’s one thing to take a wide receiver who falls to #29, or early in the second round should the team trade down. It’s another to give up most of your picks to grab a wideout in the Top 10, where Watkins and Evans will certainly be taken.
But in the tier below them are a considerable amount of top prospects, a few of whom might be available when the Patriots pick. Let’s break’em down, in reverse order of priority:
Cody Latimer, Indiana, 6’2/215
It’s a little alarming how rapidly Latimer’s stock has risen. It was just two months that I listed Cody Latimer as a late-round steal for the Patriots. Now he’s visited with essentially every team and maybe picked as early as the second round.
Now that Latimer has proven he’s healthy, teams are seeing that he could be a great possession receiver in the NFL. While he doesn’t have tremendous speed or athleticism, he’s a precise route-runner with exceptional footwork, the strength to box out defenders in the red zone (as well as being a blocking asset), and some of the best hands in the draft. In his junior year, Latimer pulled down 72 receptions for 1096 yards and 9 TDs, despite wildly inconsistent quarterback play. Put him on an NFL team with a great QB and where he won’t be the no. 1 focus for a defense, and he should flourish immediately.
Marqise Lee, USC, 6’0/192
Like Benjamin, Lee’s high big board status is mostly based on his upside, which he has plenty of. He’s got game-changing mixture of speed and agility that make him a dangerous man with the ball in his hands, as well as making him an intriguing punt/kickoff returner. With some work, he could be a great intermediate/deep threat.
But he needs work. He’s not a great route-runner and relies too much on his speed rather than his footwork to get open. The biggest cause for worry: he dropped 12.3% of his catchable targets in his junior year, and struggled with knee injuries. His upside has him pegged by most as a first-round pick, but those worries could see him drop well into the second, where the value might be there for New England, even if he will require more development than some.
Allen Robinson, Penn State, 6’3/220
Now we’re talking. The two most common comps for Allen Robinson are Anquan Boldin and Jordy Nelson. And if you’re a Pats fan who read that sentence without feeling a little giddy, then you’re dead inside.
Robinson is a big, tough receiver who will never shy away from contact. He’s a polished route runner, who played in a Bill O’Brien offense, meaning his transition with the Patriots would be smoother than most. He has surprising agility to separate, supreme hops, and has great hands. He’s not one of the more athletic receivers in the draft, and he’ll never blow by corners with his speed at the pro level. What he will do is become a super-solid possession receiver, who will catch what’s thrown to him. With a little refining in his technique, he could be Tom Brady’s new favorite receiver.
Brandin Cooks, Oregon State, 5’10/189
Alright, I want you to picture an offense with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Brandin Cooks all on the field at once. Those three would terrorize defenses, size be damned. The 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner’s frame will, like Amendola and Edelman, always lead to speculation about his ability to stay healthy, even if that was never an issue in college.
Should he stay healthy, Cooks will be a home-run threat on every snap. He destroyed the combine by running a 4.33 40, adding in 6.76 3-cone, and 3.81 shuttle for good measure. That alone will make Cooks one of the best returners in the league, but he’s a lot more than that. A tremendous athlete, Cooks’ combination of speed and agility makes him just as dangerous in the slot as he is as a deep throw threat. He runs sharp routes (of all types, may I add), has above-average hands, and is as elusive as they come. He’s dynamite.
Odell Beckham Jr., LSU, 6’0/198
Finally, we reach my favorite receiver in the draft not named Sammy Watkins. Despite only 59 receptions, Beckham Jr. piled up 1152 yards (19.5 yds/rec) and 8 TDs in his junior year at LSU. OBJ (also, the starting WR on the All-Awesome-Name team in the 2014 draft class) plays so much bigger than his size suggests, always playing tough and physical against bigger defensive backs, and more than willing to go over the middle. He’s got huge hands (10”) and wins a lot more 50-50 balls than you’d expect because of this.
Beckham Jr. will terrify defenses in the open field. He’s, perhaps, the best route runner in the class, making cuts and breaks in his routes with effortless fluidity. He gets separation with ease and is just as dangerous on the intermediate route as he is on the slot. He was one of the elite returners in LSU, and is always fighting for that extra yard. He was also a team leader with terrific intelligence both on and off the field, something that Belichick clearly prizes. Because of his lack of size, and the rise of other wideouts around him, as inconceivable as it may be, Odell Beckham Jr. may be available at 29. If so, he’d be a tremendous fit with the Patriots, as he may be the most well-rounded at his position in this draft.
Again, I’m not saying that taking a wide receiver with their first pick is the Patriots’ best strategy, I’m not even saying it’s a good one. The truth is that WR is way low on the team’s needs list, and there’s better value at other positions (most importantly at DT, DE, OLB). But this is an uncommonly good draft class, and New England may not find the same value at this position in another year. Should one of those five prospects somehow slip down the board, Bill Belichick may not pass up the opportunity to add another weapon for his star quarterback.
But what do you think? Disagree with my assessment? Did I miss anyone?
For the crazier of you, leave your favorite mock in the comments with a WR as your first pick (trades allowed)! And be sure to check back later this week for my next seven round mock.
You can find me on twitter @isportspeters and send me stuff at firstname.lastname@example.org