Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s latest attempt to land an impact wide receiver brings up an age-old question: are Belichick and the Pats bad at drafting wide receivers?
Although their most recent moves were a veteran trade (DeVante Parker) and free agency additions (Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne), the necessity to acquire Parker and the skillset he brings to the roster most certainly means the end for failing first-round pick, N’Keal Harry.
Since the Patriots drafted Harry with the 32nd overall pick in the 2019 draft, the Arizona State product has just 598 receiving yards and four touchdowns in three seasons (33 games).
Harry’s failures are constantly compared to successes like Deebo Samuel (36th), A.J. Brown (51st), DK Metcalf (64th), Terry McLaurin (76th), and others from the 2019 class.
National pundits such as Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk proclaimed after the Parker trade that the Patriots “stink” at drafting wide receivers with the spotlight once again on Harry.
Two related facts are simultaneously true about New England’s draft history at wide receiver in the Bill Belichick era (since 2000).
Fact 1: The Pats rank near the bottom of the NFL in investing premium draft capital at wide receiver. They have selected seven wide receivers in the top 100 and just one wide receiver in the first round (Harry) in 22 seasons. Only three teams have drafted fewer than seven top-100 wideouts, and every team has selected at least one wide receiver before the 32nd pick.
Fact 2: New England has not gotten good production out of their top-100 investments at wide receiver. There’s no denying this. According to Pro Football References’ approximate value metric, the Patriots are 30th out of 32 teams in average career AV of wide receivers selected in the top 100. 2002 second-rounder Deion Branch is the only one of the seven to have an above-average career.
The Patriots have found two of the best day-three wide receivers over the last two-plus decades in Julian Edelman and David Givens and found another hidden gem in undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers. But at the top of the draft, they do not invest and do not draft well at the position.
Although it’s hard to prove out-right, there is a case to be made that having elite wide receiver play is overrated in team building.
The Patriots have strayed away from drafting wide receivers because it’s inherently a flawed position in the draft. It’s difficult to project from the college to the pro game, especially in a complex offense like New England’s, and the positional value wasn’t good.
However, and Belichick is usually at the forefront of these trends, the value is now skewing towards affordable draft picks at wide receiver as the veteran market skyrockets this offseason.
According to Pro Football Focus analytics guru Timo Riske, wide receivers are quickly becoming the best bang for your buck in the draft among non-quarterbacks.
Taking the difference between the contract value of a player (rookie cost) and his actual value to his team (performance value), Riske concludes that wide receivers have the best surplus value of any position in the draft outside of quarterbacks.
With elite wide receivers eclipsing $20 million per season on top of hefty trade demands from their old clubs, the rookie wage scale is making drafted wide receivers a bargain for their teams.
For example, the Dolphins traded five draft picks and signed Tyreek Hill to a four-year contract with a record $72.2 million guaranteed last month. Those five draft picks were a first-rounder, second-rounder, and fourth-rounder in 2022 plus 2023 fourth and sixth-rounders.
On the other hand, the Vikings selected wide receiver Justin Jefferson with the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 draft (Pats pick 21st this year).
Jefferson has averaged 1,508 receiving yards with 17 career touchdowns, earning two trips to the Pro Bowl on a four-year, $13.1 million rookie contract in his first two seasons.
The same argument can be made for the highly-productive 2019 wide receiver class outside of the first round; Metcalf, Samuel, Brown, and McLaurin are all steals on their current deals.
In today’s NFL, you have two options to acquire an elite wide receiver. Door number one is the Dolphins and Raiders model of sinking multiple premium draft picks and signing record-breaking contracts, while door number two is finding cost-controlled production in the draft.
If the Pats don’t want to open door number one, and for a good reason, Bill Belichick must keep trying to open door number two, or they’ll struggle to compete in the AFC arms race.
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag with the 2022 NFL Draft quickly approaching:
Who is on your list of players that you wouldn't trade down if they are available at 21? Excluding the obvious top 15 guys.
— ashley1992 (@ashley1992__) April 6, 2022
Here’s a good way to phrase a popular question. My realistic list is Jameson Williams, Jordan Davis, Chris Olave, Devin Lloyd, Nakobe Dean, Andrew Booth Jr., Devonte Wyatt, and Jermaine Johnson. I would also run the card up to the commissioner if Derek Stingley or Trevon Walker falls further than expected. There’s also some buzz that the media is higher on Mississippi State OT Charles Cross than the league. If he were there at 21, I’d take him. After that, the talent is pretty level for the next ten picks or so, and a trade down would make sense.
As of now, who is the starting guard opposite Onwenu? Ferentz? A rookie? Late cut from another team?
— Steve is Reliving the 80s 🥃 (@huskyjayhawk) April 6, 2022
The Bills went 19-straight possessions without punting against the Patriots’ defense last season, yet mock drafters continue to select BC guard Zion Johnson in the first round for New England. Give me a break. That’s a nonsensical use of that asset, and we will not stand for it here. If you think Johnson or any first-round guard moves the needle for you at all against Buffalo and the powerhouses in the AFC, you’re looney tunes.
Still, my gut says a mid-round rookie will win the job. It’s a deep interior offensive line class, especially if you consider college tackles who will likely move inside as pros. There are starters at guard in the middle rounds.
Fits: Jamaree Saylor (Georgia), Dylan Parham (Memphis), Sean Rhyan (UCLA), Luke Fortner (Kentucky), Cole Strange (Chattanooga), Marquis Hayes (Oklahoma), and Zach Tom (Wake Forest).
What’s your thoughts on Nakobe Dean in the first round? It seems to be getting alot of hype
— Byron Farmer (@ByronFarmer11) April 6, 2022
Nakobe Dean plays linebacker in The Matrix. His ability to navigate and slither around blocks to find the football is remarkable. Plus, he processes and plays the game at warp speed, making up for his lack of size. Dean can also cover and rush the passer. He is a tremendous prospect with excellent tape. However, he is roughly the same weight as Kyle Dugger with less length. Some NFL teams view him as a sub-package player only. It’s a complete departure, which isn’t bad if the Patriots stock up on block-eaters along the defensive line to keep Dean clean as Jordan Davis and company did at Georgia. If Belichick has a plan to use him properly, then I’m all for it. They’d need to tweak the scheme to build it around Dean in the front seven.
Do you think the pats need to or would trade up to select Trevor Penning?
— Howard Stephens (@HowardStephens1) April 6, 2022
Do I think they need to trade up for Penning? Maybe. Do I think they will or should? No. Penning’s nasty play demeanor and enticing physical tools will make him a first-round pick. But it’s a conundrum regarding what the Pats would do with Penning as a rookie. He had an up-and-down week at the Senior Bowl against much better competition than he faced at UNI. Along with controlling his aggression, Penning needs to improve his flexibility and mirroring against inside counters. On the one hand, there are some technical issues to work out while Penning adjusts to the level of competition. But with so few padded practices these days, it might be trial by combat for Penning. This might not be the time for a redshirt year in the first round.
What do you think is the most realistic unpopular amongst fans pick the Pats make at 21 ?
— Fin Christie (@christie_fin) April 6, 2022
The obvious answer here is a guard. But in the interest of having a different take, I believe the most slept-on need for the Patriots is a strong-side edge rusher. In two of the last three seasons, Kyle Van Noy has held down one of the most critical roles in Belichick’s scheme, aligning over the tight end and setting the edge of the defense. Ideally, that player also has the skill set to rush the passer and drop into coverage. It’s a complex and significant role. Van Noy allowed Matthew Judon to play the rush-linebacker spot on the backside, and there’s no obvious replacement for KVN on the roster. Uche doesn’t have the playing strength for it, and Ronnie Perkins is a complete unknown. Some draft options include Jermaine Johnson (first round), Minnesota’s Boye Mafe (top 50), and South Carolina’s Kingsley Enagbare (top 100).
Before the combine, Treylon Burks was thought to be one of the top WR options… feel he’s dropped to #5 now and available in most mocks at 21. He tested like N’Keal, but his tape looks a lot faster/more aggressive. Should the Pats have interest if he’s available? Harry do-over?
— Agro (@clieb_1) April 6, 2022
Although I’m out on Burks for the Patriots, it has nothing to do with his play speed or 40 time. My concern with Burks’s projection into New England’s offense is his route running. His route tree was extremely basic at Arkansas. His technique and quickness at the top of routes are also lacking, which will limit him to verticals and schemed touches. In all likelihood, Burks will develop into a good NFL receiver. However, my confidence level with Burks reaching his ceiling as a Patriot is astronomically low.
Who is your favourite prospect in this draft that nobody is talking about?
— Jono Thorpe (@jonothorpejazz) April 6, 2022
I’ll give you a mainstream answer and an under-the-radar answer. My mainstream answer is Western Michigan’s, Skyy Moore. His release package is the best among the day-two wideouts, he’s both explosive off the line and sudden in his route breaks, and he has a Julian Edelman slither about him as a ball carrier. Although he’ll probably go somewhere between 21 and 54, he’s a perfect fit if the Pats move around the board. I’ll also continue banging the drum for Kentucky DE Josh Paschal. He’s a tweener with great play strength, block anticipation, and overall feel for maximizing his physical tools to beat blocks. My pro comparison for Paschal is Trey Flowers. He looks like a round three or four guy.
Who are your favourite Day 3/UFDA prospects?
— hellostarStar (@hellostarStar) April 6, 2022
Look out for Idaho nose tackle Noah Elliss. Elliss was a three-year starter who is an absolute monster at 6-4, 350 pounds. Along with tremendous size and strength, he plays with good natural pad level and leverage, which helps him get underneath blockers to hold the point of attack. It’s a low-key great draft for two-gapping nose tackles such as Jordan Davis, Travis Jones, John Ridgeway, and Marquan McCall. If you want the deep sleeper, Elliss is the guy.
This is a luxury need for sure, but do you think drafting a 3rd down RB in the middle rounds would be too much of a reach with the current roster? Call it Kyren Williams late 3 or early 4? In a years time, Harris and White could be gone. Stevenson & Williams 2023?
— Brendan Rush (@BrendanRush) April 6, 2022
With James White returning from a severe hip injury and Brandon Bolden in Vegas, receiving back is a need. Although it’s a minor note, J.J. Taylor attending workouts with his Pats teammates in Tampa this week is noteworthy. Remember, that’s a role that takes a few years to grasp in the Pats’ system. In the draft, the sweet spot feels like the fourth round or later with bigger necessities in the top 100 (White was a fourth-round pick in 2014). If the Pats add more day-two picks in a trade down, it could open up an early day three selection for a running back. Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams and Missouri’s Tyler Badie fit the mold in that range. Oregon’s C.J. Verdell is a late day-three target.
Reasonable compensation for Harry
— Robert Burnett (@Rwburnett) April 6, 2022
I have a tough time imagining the Patriots getting more for Harry than a conditional sixth or seventh-round pick. I’d try to package Harry in a pick swap to move up the board to get a player they’re targeting. We’ve seen the Pats be on the other side of these pick swaps. For example, Harry and No. 158 to move up 15 spots. I’m just spitballing there.