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Patriots 2020 NFL Draft Preview: Wide Receivers

Positional Overview: In any other year, I'd be delivering my annual disclaimer that the Patriots value the wide receiver position less than any other team in the modern era. At least in terms of expending draft capital to get one. In 20 drafts in New England, Bill Belichick has taken a paltry total of 17 wideouts. A few of them, like Matthew Slater, are WRINOs (WRs in Name Only). 10 of them were selected in the fourth round or later. And eight of them in Rounds 5-7. So this is where I'd be reminding you to stop wasting your time lusting after some elite [checks WR Cliche Randomizer app] weapon for Jarrett Stidham, who can stretch the field and take the top off the defense, etc. etc. Because quarterbacks make receivers, not the other way around. 

But this is not any other year. In 2020, things are different. Not just because of the change at quarterback. And not just because of how little the position produced last year. But because of what seems to be changing priorities in the way this team is being built. The 1991 Browns Belichick scouting memo that came out last week indicated that he was all about building the team from the inside, out. But with the Franchise tag keeping Joe Thuney here for the foreseeable future, they'd appear to have that inside box checked, with a desperate need for upgrades on the outside. N'Keal Harry is the franchise outlier, taken in the first round last year. We know now Mohamed Sanu was battling through a leg injury that required surgery. And Julian Edelman removed a lot of doubt about whether he could produce post-PED suspension with his best statistical year. But he's about to turn 34, and there are a lot of city miles on that engine. 

A pretty good indicator of how much of a priority this position has become is that at the Combine in Indy, the Patriots had interviews with a total of 21 prospects. Four of them were defensive backs. Six of them were tight ends. And 12 of them were wideouts. Twelve. As Alec Baldwin says in "Glengarry Glen Ross," nobody walks on the lot unless he's looking to buy. 

Another thing we learned from Belichick's old memo is what he values most at the position. First, someone who can get off the line of scrimmage, regardless of how he does it. Size, speed, physicality, technique, whatever. Next he wants someone with elite hands. Next it's discipline as a route runner; no freelancers. Yards after catch are huge. Speed is only important if that's how you get off the line, and not nearly as mission critical as timing and a good leap. If a guy can present mismatches due to his size and athleticism, he has the makings of a third receiver type. As far as the Class of 2020, you could pick worse years to be in the market, with as many as six or maybe even seven expected to go in Round 1 and some depth after that. 

Current Roster: Edelman, Sanu, Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Quincy Adeboyejo, Devin Ross, Slater*

The Consensus No. 1(s):

Jerry Jeudy, Alabama. 6-foot-1, 193 pounds, 4.45 40-time

Forgive me the nonsensical header, but no less a source than NFL.com's draft page has Jeudy as their No. 2 receiver prospect. But they're more or less on an island on that one. Pretty much everyone else has him as the best in his class, and it's not close. He's got elite traits all across the board. He's the best at getting off the line. An advanced route runner with the footwork to make corners flip their hips and create space. And while he was only tied for 10th in the 40 at the Lucas Oil Olympics, he's got the burst to to run away from outside leverage on deep balls. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Antonio Brown

CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma. 6-2, 198 lb, 4.50

Lamb is the guy NFL.com has going just ahead of Jeudy in the middle of the first round. His length and ranginess are his superpower, with the length of his stride making up for a lack of traditional quickness. Think the way Hulk leaps as opposed to the way Flash runs, if I can mix comic book brands without upsetting people. He's smooth and fluid as a route runner, which helps him get vertical, even against off coverage, and has a nice change of speed, as opposed to being explosive. He produced for three seasons in an Oklahoma spread offense that was stacked. There's some concern that he lacks the build of a primary receiver and might project better as a "move" Z or in the slot. But 21.4 YPR reception last year is, as Trump said about the flu, nothing to sneeze at.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Robby Anderson

The Other Likely First Rounders:

Henry Ruggs III, Alabama. 5-11, 188 lb, 4.27

When your speed is being measured in MPH and being compared to non-humans and metahumans like cheetahs, deer and Usain Bolt, you're a guaranteed first rounder. To put his performance at the Combine in perspective, the difference between his 40-time and the second fastest guys was equal to the difference between No. 2 and No. 8. And that speed translates all over the field, in all three levels, short areas, against deep coverage, in Jet sweeps, motions, reverses and screens. As a receiver, he can track the ball over either shoulder and will go over the middle and absorb punishment. He's had to deal with minor injuries at times. But any precision engineered driving machine will inevitably need time in the shop. Somewhere in California a voodoo priestess is using dark magic to raise Al Davis from the grave in accordance with his will, just so he can comeback from the dead to draft this guy. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Ted Ginn, Jr.

Lavishka Shenault Jr., Colorado. 6-1, 227 lb, 4.58

It might be tempting to see a guy with Shenault's frame and one of the slowest 40-times in Indy and Slot Shame him, but don't. Because he can play all over the formation. He's physical enough in tight spaces and crowded areas  that he could be first one out of a (pre-Covid) Tokyo subway train at rush hour. And that skill set helped him lead the nation in receptions per game with 9.6. But he's also a legitimate deep threat and was used in multiple ways, as a single receiver outside the numbers, as a Z and in the backfield as a direct snap runner. He's probably the most versatile pure athlete in this group who could use some coaching to reach his full potential. But then again, so could we all. (With the exception of Tom Cruise, who's achieved perfection.)

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: JuJu Smith-Schuster

Tee Higgins, Clemson. 6-4, 216 lb, 4.53

Higgins put up the same number of receptions last season (59) as he did for Clemson's national title team, with one more touchdown (13). And yet still he improved, upping his YPC to 19.8. He produced more along the boundaries, demonstrated better skills to make catches over both shoulders and high point balls, and a bigger catch radius. I should point out that 40-time is just an estimate, since he exercised his right as a free American to not run at Roger Goodell's company picnic in Indiana. But most scouts agree his play speed is much faster than his speed running in shorts and sneakers, thanks to his long gait. As a pro, he's going to need to get on the NFL-approved supplements and add mass to be a true outside the numbers guy. But for now he could easily step in as an X-receiver and an immediate red zone threat. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: DeAndre Hopkins

Justin Jefferson, LSU. 6-1, 202 lb, 4.43

Jefferson is sort of like Higgins, but without the versatility. He's a slot specialist, with 100 of his 111 catches last season coming from inside the numbers. He's also a production factory that works three shifts, turning all them receptions into 1,540 yards and 19 touchdowns. He's also the sort of story that good parents used to teach their children, at a time before America started getting our heroes from Ryan Seacrest Productions and TikTok. Jefferson was the 308th-ranked wideout prospect in the nation coming out of high school in Louisiana. But he went on to win a national title in his home state, beat Oklahoma with four touchdowns in the playoffs, lead the nation in receiving and secure his quarterback a Heisman. As it is, he probably lacks the explosiveness to be a WR-1 in the NFL and will probably come off the board early in the second round. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Michael Thomas

Aforementioned Receivers the Patriots Spoke to at the Combine: Higgins, Ruggs III

Next-Tier Receivers the Patriots Spoke to at the Combine:

KJ Hamler, Penn State. 5-9, 178 lb, 4.37

Like with Higgins, that is Hamler's estimated speed, but no one questions how fast he is. Nor is there any doubt with his other measurables where he lined up at Penn State. He's a slot receiver to be sure. And his best skills are his short area quickness, his pivot, change of direction and stop/start. But he's still an elite enough athlete to get after it up the seam and go vertical on your collective ass. He's an elusive prey who'll shake a defender with the ball in his hands, but his route running needs refinement and he has a tendency to round off his stems instead of plant his foot and make sharp cuts. He also doesn't have the best hands and will body catch too much. But even in Belichick's memo he mentioned that guys will questionable hands can develop them. But as everyone who's ever evaluated someone else's ability to run since mankind came down out of the trees and started walking upright to look for predators in the tall grass has been fond of saying, you can't teach speed. Hamler also is a plug and play kick returner and was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation's Most Versatile Player, and not to someone who disgraced himself by betting on NFL games. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Hollywood Brown

Jalen Reagor, TCU. 5-11, 206 lb, 4.47

Despite coming in at under six feet ("…which is better than coming in at six feet under!" - Trump, probably), Reagor lined up by the boundary almost exclusively for the Horned Frogs. His weapon of choice is his route running, which is highly developed and polished, with an advanced understanding of concepts and the ability to set up a defender to get himself open. He's also go the explosive quickness to eat up a cushion in off zone coverage and get over the top of a corner. He was TCU's MVP in 2018, and throughout his career has been used not only in the passing game but as a rusher, kick returner and punt returner. The year before last he had 72 receptions for over 1,000 yards, but fell to 43 and 611, owing mostly to some shoddy QBing. He's a versatile enough athlete to help all over the place in the pros.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Brandin Cooks

Van Jefferson, Florida. 6-1, 200lb, 4.55

As much as I could go the rest of my life without seeing the Patriots ever draft another Florida Gator, I'll make an exception for Van Jefferson. He's a legacy who gets to pledge Delta House because his dad Shawn spent four years here as a Drew Bledsoe target, including on the 1996 conference champions. And he once led the league with an astonishing 22.7 YPC. So out of respect, I'll forget about all the previous busts - and that one homicidal maniac - that have been brought through here. His career production was good though not spectacular after transferring from Mississippi: 43 catches for 1,160 yards and 12 TDs over two seasons. But he really stood out at the Senior Bowl, repeatedly out-fighting defenders to grab 50/50 balls. As his 40 would indicate, he's less of a burner than a nuanced route runner. In fact, he's generally considered the best route runner in his class. He's also played all over the formation and has the experience of playing in two different systems against the best competition in the country. He could easily be a mid-round flyer type of guy who can provide depth as a versatile third or fourth option for now, and develop as a WR2 with experience and coaching. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Malcolm Mitchell

Denzel Mims, Baylor. 6-3, 207 lb, 4.33

From a physical standpoint, Mims is the wide receiver Belichick would create on his drawing board and hand to the engineers to get them started on building the mock up. Not that he gives a crap about the 40-time, impressive though it is. More importantly, Mims won the Indy Kennel Club's Best in Show at the 3-cone drill, lapping the field with a 6.66. Anything below a 7.00 is impressive. That's enough to create an anomaly in spacetime. By comparison, the second fastest was 6.94. Production-wise, his career pretty much mirrored Baylor's as the program went through a sexual assault scandal. In 2017, he was good for 61 receptions for 1,087 yards and eight touchdowns. That dropped to 55 for 794 and eight the following year. Then he roared back with 66 for 1,020 and 12 last season. For the record, his and Stidham's Bears careers didn't overlap, as the QB noped out of there for Auburn before Mims was a freshman. Like a lot of guys from Baylor, he's raw and needs refinement in a lot of areas. But he's got a full tool box to work with and proved that with his workouts in Mobile. In addition to his 3-cone, he showed an above average vertical at the Combine and has the wingspan of the Spruce Goose. There's some question about his compete level on contested balls, but he's made enough catches over defender's heads to question those questions. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Tre'Quan Smith

The Perfect Patriot: Higgins. As they inspected the guy, he had to have checked every trait on their punch list for wideout position. His size. His increasing production. His experience against the best competition. Versatility. His ability to catch fades and corner routes, which they were sorely lacking in the red zone last year. Realistically though, I think he'll be off the board by the time they're selecting and I can't imagine moving up to grab a wideout so early after taking one in the first last year. 

Whom the Patriots will take: Van Jefferson. Believe me, I can easily see them taking Mims as well. And if they do I'll do a lot of self-loathing because it was so obvious with that 6.66 staring the biggest 3-cone fetishist in the world in the face. And I could see them taking both. But Jefferson simply seems like a better choice, going somewhere in that sweet spot in Rounds 3-6 where they have a motherlode of picks. It's Van Jefferson, the first of many young wide receiver prospects for Studham to develop. 

Earlier previews: