Patriots legend Julian Edelman has retired from the NFL, leaving behind a large hole in the slot.
Although Edelman only appeared in six games last season, his separation quickness and route-running ability combined with elusiveness as a ball carrier made him a matchup nightmare; defenses prepared weekly for a number one receiver in Edelman.
The Pats will rely on free-agent additions Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, operating through two dynamic tight ends, but the Edelman mold receivers are highly effective in their scheme.
From Brown to Branch to Welker to Edelman, the slot machine always pays out in New England.
There are two types of routes in particular that Edelman dominated on in his career with the Patriots. First, is New England’s juke series headlined by Edelman’s patented whip route.
Julian Edelman had two go-to routes in his career. First one was the whip/pivot route. Sell an inside release like it's a drag/slant and then suddenly change directions at the break point to whip back outside to the flat. Game-winner against Seattle in Super Bowl 49. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/dKSP9BogJf
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 13, 2021
In New England’s offense, the juke series is an option route often featured on HOSS Z Juke and other staples in their offense. The receiver can break inside (juke), outside (whip/pivot), or sit in between underneath zones based on the coverage. To run the route effectively, wideouts need sudden change of direction skills that Edelman possessed.
The other route that became one of Edelman's best was the over route. The #Patriots liked using a short motion into a stack to get Edelman free releases. He'd then burst into the defenders leverage, carry his stem vertically to get the defender on his back, & snap off a crosser. pic.twitter.com/NzZ9VHqGYy
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 13, 2021
The other route that became Edelman’s staple was the over route or an intermediate crosser. Over routes are effective against zone or man coverage, but Edelman feasted on man coverage matchups against out-leveraged corners. The Pats would get him free releases, and he’d threaten leverage before exploding out of his break coming across the field.
When it comes to options currently on the roster, the Patriots have replacements for one of Edelman’s go-to routes (over routes) but not necessarily the other (juke series) in their wide receiver room.
Last season, Jakobi Meyers ran the intermediate routes in Edelman’s route tree, taking pointers from Edelman himself on how to set up defenders and work through coverage to get open.
Along with Meyers, free agent signings Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne spent time running intermediate, and in Agholor’s case, vertical routes from inside the formation in their careers.
Agholor’s speed gives him the ability to stretch the field from the slot, and he was effective on both intermediate crossers and deep over routes in his last stops. With Philadelphia, Agholor primarily ran routes out of the slot, with 66 percent of his routes coming inside in 2019. He transitioned to more of an outside role with the Raiders but still ran 217 slot routes.
As for Bourne, 40.5 percent of his routes were from the slot last season, while many of his outside reps were in tight to the formation. I used prime Mohamed Sanu as a player comparison for Bourne, who has good quickness in his breaks and feel for zone coverage combined with toughness going over the middle. However, he operates more on a vertical route tree breaking off slants, skinny posts and sitting down in zones.
The Patriots have the horizontal stretch and vertical threats out of the slot covered, but their wide receiver room is missing a jitterbug on short routes and yards after the catch.
New England has options now when you factor in the tight ends, and maybe James White can serve as a chains-mover, but where do they go for a quick third-and-short conversion?
As we mentioned, Edelman made a killing running sharp change of direction routes underneath the defense, and that’s a skill set that the Pats could use more of in their current receiver room.
On the one hand, the next iteration of the Patriots’ offense might be more vertical and won’t feature things like the juke series as often as it did when Tom Brady was under center. But it’s still valuable to have in your back pocket, especially in short-yardage situations to move the chains.
The other element to Edelman’s game that will need replacing is his ability to pick up yards after the catch or as a ball carrier on schemed touches, which is where they can turn to the draft.
Luckily for New England, the 2021 wide receiver class is flushed with slot receiver options in the undersized speedster mold that will likely carry over into day three due to the sheer depth.
Below, we’ll roll through the plethora of options the Patriots will have in April’s draft to replace Julian Edelman’s role in the offense:
DeVonta Smith, Alabama
Wanted to focus on reps by DeVonta Smith where he wasn't schemed open. Lot more of those than people realize.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 19, 2021
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is more than just a shifty slot receiver; he can do it all and would immediately give the Patriots a potential future All-Pro at the position. Although it’s lying season, there are rumblings that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have an affinity for the Alabama star. Smith is versatile, tough, and explosive, with the ability to run various routes from different alignments. Smith can line up outside and run by press coverage or win inside with suddenness between the numbers. He’s also a catch-and-run artist on quick-hitters over the middle and a weapon on schemed touches where ‘Bama got the ball in his hands in space. Smith’s size profile could see him fall to New England at 15, and with the need there for a true number one, it would be difficult to pass on him if a quarterback isn’t in the cards.
Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
We'll see if Jaylen Waddle is on Tyreek Hill's level in terms of speed, but it appears he's in the same ballpark.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 20, 2021
If the Patriots want speed, Waddle is the closest thing we’ve seen to Tyreek Hill since the Chiefs star became a household name. Waddle has elite three-level speed that he can use in a multitude of ways. The obvious one is on vertical routes and horizontal foot races coming across the field. But Alabama also found ways to get Waddle into space on plays behind the line of scrimmage, and he has better change of direction at the top of his routes than he gets credit for at times. Waddle is faster in a straight line than he is quick, unlike Edelman. But he’s a new-age Z receiver that will bring a level of explosiveness that the Patriots haven’t had since Randy Moss. The only concern with Waddle is that he’s coming off a fractured ankle last season, which could either be a medical red flag or the only reason he lasts long enough for the Patriots to take him in the first round.
Rashod Bateman, Minnesota
#Patriots draft target: WR Rashod Bateman. Technician with quick feet & good initial burst.
Bottom of screen on a slant. Aim at CBs outside hip with a quick foot fire/jab step to get CB to speed turn & lose leverage. Re-stem inside & break right into YAC. CB is in a blender. pic.twitter.com/iLU1UzRZf0
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 20, 2021
Bateman is the slept-on receiver in this class for New England in the first round because he didn’t play for Nick Saban at Alabama. The Minnesota product is an electric route-runner that has terrific big-play ability. In many ways, he reminds me of my draft crush last year, Justin Jefferson. Bateman is a technician in how he sets up defenders for his breaks and has breakaway ability in YAC mode. He’ll slam on the breaks or juke away from coverage just as quickly as he can separate over the top on a vertical route. Plus, he’s got excellent hands and toughness to finish through contact. Bateman might be in a tricky range for the Patriots; rated too low to go at 15 but too high for them to snag him in the second round. If a wide receiver is the target at the top of the draft, Bateman would be an ideal candidate to trade back a few spots to take him in the early 20s, which is where Jefferson went a year ago (22 to Minnesota).
TOP 50 TARGETS
Kadarius Toney, Florida
#Patriots fans need to know Florida WR Kadarius Toney. Do-it-all slot receiver with electric change of direction, vertical speed, and YAC ability. Check him out on the juke route here. Stacking that second move to threaten the defenders' leverage in his break is ? pic.twitter.com/h8HAGTAU4i
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 14, 2021
In the first game of Toney’s that I turned on, he ran a juke route over the middle where he stacked together two moves in such quick succession that it made me make an audible noise. He’s quick, explosive, and built like a running back for work after the catch. Toney likes to compare himself to Saints running back Alvin Kamara because he prides himself on his contact balance and elusiveness as a ball carrier. Toney has the potential to make a Kamara-like impact on his team, running routes from everywhere and creating after the catch. He’s also more than capable of separating downfield on vertical routes due to his speed.
Elijah Moore, Ole Miss
#Patriots draft target: Ole Miss WR Elijah Moore. If the Pats want to add speed on day two, Moore comes in a similar mold as Hardman/Hamler.
Moore vs Alabama is a perfect script for him in the NFL. Slants off RPOs paired w/sluggos, finding MOF voids on crossers, schemed touches. pic.twitter.com/hn62CD53zR
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) February 23, 2021
Moore is rising up media boards in the pre-draft process due to an outstanding pro day where he ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and a 6.66-second three-cone. That straight-line speed and quickness certainly translated on tape, as Ole Miss found ways to get Moore into very winnable foot races constantly. He operated almost exclusively out of the slot, and due to his size limitations, will play inside in the NFL. Some teams will be concerned about his frame holding up and a small catch radius, but Moore is a big-play threat every time he steps on a football field.
TOP 100 TARGETS
Amari Rodgers, Clemson
#Patriots draft target: Clemson WR Amari Rodgers. Slot WR with a RB build that reminds me a lot of Deebo Samuel. Burst + elusiveness in YAC mode.
These are the types of option routes that scream Pats. Attacking leverage in stems, pacing/acceleration through breaks, YAC machine. pic.twitter.com/ylfkgn3G1z
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 8, 2021
The easy comparison for Rodgers is 49ers wideout Deebo Samuel, who the Pats passed on in the 2019 draft to select N’Keal Harry. Rodgers is a slot receiver with a running back frame with returner-like skills in the open field. He’s a YAC and schemed-touch monster that created chunk play after chunk play with the ball in his hands. Rodgers also has solid change of direction at the top of his routes to create separation on quick-hitters over the middle and would be a perfect fit in New England.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC
#Patriots draft target: USC WR Amon-Ra St. Brown. Exactly the type of WR I want the Pats to draft. Explosive/quick, versatile, great at catch point, excellent route runner.
Filthy post-corner. Wins at the line by getting the CB to bite on an outside release, sell/break, dusted. pic.twitter.com/EqYQ6lp4XE
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) February 22, 2021
St. Brown isn’t the big-play creator that most of these guys are as a ball carrier, but his game reminds me of Jakobi Meyers with a better athletic profile (simply put, he’s faster than Meyers). The USC product is a smooth operator that projects well into a Z receiver role at the next level. His route-running is efficient and shows excellent intelligence to beat any type of coverage. St. Brown is one of the best technicians in this class, and his quickness and technique at top of his routes is superb. St. Brown is the type of receiver that works out in New England, even if he doesn’t have game-breaking speed. For those reasons, I’m much higher on him than most.
Rondale Moore, Purdue
#Patriots draft target: Purdue WR Rondale Moore. Moore only played in 7 games over the last two seasons due to injury but is an electric ball carrier and quick-twitch WR.
Bottom of the screen. Natural separation skills. Attacks angles, suddenness, and instant acceleration. pic.twitter.com/N9Lc4UdnDR
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 21, 2021
Moore is electric, there’s no doubt about it, but he only played seven games in his final two seasons at Purdue because of injuries. Due to those durability concerns, I have a tough time taking Moore in the top 50. Still, he has top 50 tape and is one of the most explosive athletes in the draft. Moore can easily take a five-yard slant 75 yards to the house and will be a problem for opposing defenses at the top of his routes and with the ball in his hands. However, his downfield route tree could be a bit limited by his size and catch radius. Moore is an exceptional athlete, though, and will be worth the injury risk on day two.
D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan
D'Wayne Eskridge is one of the most explosive wide receivers in the draft. Elite catch-and-run playmaker. Can stop on a dime too in his breaks. Brings special teams/return value. Very intriguing prospect. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/DkNmiqicKi
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 8, 2021
The Patriots continue to show interest in Eskridge throughout the pre-draft process due to his four-down versatility that is very Edelman-like. Eskridge is an explosive big-play receiver that is a home run threat with the ball in his hands. He can accelerate from a standstill to blow by defenders with ease, whether it’s on a slant, a wide receiver screen, or stopping downfield on a dime and immediately transitioning into YAC mode. He has also dabbled in playing cornerback and is an ace special teamer returning and covering kicks. There’s nothing Eskridge can’t do on a football field, and after Bill Belichick’s description of Edelman in his retirement announcement, you get the sense that Eskridge checks a lot of the same boxes.
Jaelon Darden, North Texas
There are some technique things to work out with North Texas WR Jaelon Darden to reach his ceiling, but you can't teach speed. Electric playmaker:
– Long speed & sudden burst
– Elusiveness & burst in YAC mode
– Change of direction in route breaks
– Gadget plays/ kick returner pic.twitter.com/pGNoVkRywO
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 8, 2021
Darden is a human joystick that put up insane numbers at North Texas with 31 touchdowns over the last two seasons, many of which were over 50 yards. He can blow past coverage or juke around defenders to create big plays with excellent quickness all over the field. I have some hesitations with Darden as a downfield threat because of his size and slight frame (5-8, 174 pounds). NFL corners will be able to ride him and jam him up downfield if the offense doesn’t scheme him into free releases. Still, he’ll be an instant threat on gadget plays, and with the right play-caller, can be aided by alignment to use his speed downfield. He’ll likely go by the end of round three, but I’d be surprised if the Patriots take Dardon before the fourth round. He’s got excellent big-play ability and production, but will Dardon be just a gadget player, or can he develop as a downfield receiver? That’ll determine his ceiling in the pros.
DAY THREE TARGETS
Tutu Atwell, Louisville
Add Louisville's Tutu Atwell to the list of undersized slot WRs that can fly. Field-stretcher from slot, catch-and-run threat on shallow routes, and gadget player (pop passes/sweeps, screens, etc).
Size could cause him to go day 3/UDFA (5-9/155) but he was a big-play machine. pic.twitter.com/fYHAu5UdS0
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 8, 2021
Atwell has day two tape but day three or even UDFA size. At 5-9, 155 pounds, Atwell has a rail-thin frame, and his 4.42-second time in the 40-yard dash was good but not good enough. Based on the film, that could make Atwell a steal on day three. He’s a threat to score from anywhere on the field as either a deep threat or schemed-open weapon. As was the case against Miami in 2019, Atwell can take a shallow drag route 75 yards to the house or create a big play on a jet sweep or reverse. But his size and athletic profile suggest he’ll fall a bit in the draft due to durability and concerns about playing through contact, which, again, could present good value on day three.
Shi Smith, South Carolina
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 27, 2021
The South Carolina product had a big week in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, flashing excellent change of direction skills to separate at the break point. There are a lot of moments on tape where Smith’s sudden change of direction pops, and he is a seam and YAC threat too. The Patriots love to take guys that stood out at the Senior Bowl, and Smith certainly did that.