Patriots 2021 Draft Preview: Wide Receivers

Steven Senne. Shutterstock Images.

Current Roster: Julian Edelman, N'Keal Harry, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Gunnar Olszewski, Kristian Wilkerson, Isaiah Zuber, Devin Smith

Positional Overview: Nobody reading this needs me to describe the Patriots wide receiver situation in 2020. A franchise that had built a Dynasty out of not emphasizing this position had de-emphasized it to the point of total ruination. Part of the reason had to do with Julian Edelman's injuries. Part of it was N'Keal Harry's failure to launch, and right now he's wrapping up his two year apprenticeship and is just one bad game away from getting his Professional Draft Bust license. But regardless, they had an overachieving UDFA like Jakobi Meyers, who should be a WR3 or 4 on a good team, as their main target. I said you don't need me to describe it, so I'll let the late, great Roger Ebert do it for me. As he once said of a terrible movie, "It soars above ordinary badness as the eagle outreaches the fly."

I won't get too deep into the weeds of how it got so bad, other than to issue my annual reminder that no team in the NFL drafts fewer wideouts than the Patriots do At what has become the most heavily drafted position in the league, they've continually bucked the trend. In his 21 drafts in New England, Bill Belichick has selected a total of just 17 receivers. And that number includes some pure special teamers like Matthew Slater. Plus Harry is a true outlier because roughly half of those have been taken in rounds 5-7. No team values the position less. And like it did in 2006, the lack of talent there finally caught up to them and is in need of an upgrade. Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne will be upgrades, for sure. But with Edelman's health and Harry's pro football playerishness both very much in doubt, a long term solution here is an area of need as much as it's ever been.

Here's the tricky part. Not only is wideout the most heavily drafted position in the NFL, it's the most fraught with peril. The bust factor is higher than at any other spot. And has been since long before Matt Millen was drawing up the blueprints to the first 0-16 team by drafting them in the 1st round every year. It's just a viciously tough position to scout. Just look no further than the last couple of drafts, where the best rookies weren't the highest drafted. Another thing Pats fans do not need to be reminded of is that, while Harry went 32nd overall, DK Metcalf was 64th and Terry McLaurin lasted until 76. Last year was a huge draft for WRs. And Justin Jefferson, who had exactly 1,400 yards, was the fifth one taken. While Jalen Reagor, who went ahead of him, had over 1,000 fewer yards. Chase Claypool finished fourth in his rookie class in yards, and was the 11th wideout to come off the board. 

For about at least the third year in a row, this is considered an incredibly talented and deep class. It's spotting the future busts now and not when it's too late that's the trick. And with no Combine, the job is going to be harder by an order of magnitude. It think it affects the Patriots less because they're more interested in what shows up on a guy's film than on his stopwatch (Harry was one of the slowest at his position in the 2019 Lucas Oil Olympics.) And believe their priority is a smaller, slot receiver type, someone who can work in the middle of the field while Agholor, Bourne and the free agent tight ends handle the seams and deep routes. Even if that slot guy develops behind Edelman for a year or two, the way he did when Wes Welker was here. This offense runs on such men. And they were sorely lacking last year.

The Mortal Lock 1st Rounders:

Ja'Marr Chase, LSU. 6-foot-0, 201 pounds, 4.38 40-time

Chase opted out of the 2020 season, but there's no reason to expect that will cost him because he's the most NFL-ready, plug-and-play receiver in his class. He got off to a slowish start to his career, with 313 yard in seven starts as a true freshman. But by Tigers' National Championship season, he was Joe Burrow's favorite target, with 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns. He's got all the traits you look for in a Week 1 rookie starter. He's not massive like a Metcalf, but he's got good size to go with elite speed. He runs with good body control, has burst and acceleration. And has by far the best hands in the group, with 10 fingers and two palms of Memory Foam that is softer than Michael Rapoport. But only his hands are soft as he's demonstrated he's got the mental and physical toughness a two-ply, out-of-work actor only pretends to have. Not everyone agrees he'll be the first WR taken, but the way Justin Jefferson tore it up in his rookie year after coming out of LSU is certainly not going to hurt Chase's prospects. 

Compares to the other leading brand: AJ Brown

DeVonta Smith, Alabama. 6-0, 175 lb, 4.51

The question every NFL prospect faces is whether they can handle pressure in the big moments. And in Smith's case, that question has been asked and answered, counselor. So let's move on. As a freshman he caught the game winner in overtime against Georgia to win the National Title. And in last year's championship, took a flamethrower to the place, with 12 catches, 215 yards and three scores, in the 1st half. Ohio State essentially could've not covered him at all and gotten the same results. In all he caught a preposterous 117 balls for over 1,800 yards and became the first receiver to win the Heisman in 30 years. His best asset is his release, with a suddenness off the line that makes him next to impossible to play press coverage on and enables him to get over the top of corners. The obvious concern with him is that middle number after his name. He's listed at 175, but at the Senior Bowl, he avoided getting weighed like the floor of the scale was lava, and some people think he might be as low as 165. I'm 165, and I'm an aging, sedentary writer who doesn't have to worry about outmuscling Stephon Gilmore. He lined up a lot outside the numbers at Bama, and showed a tendency to be run out of bounds by stronger, more physical defenders. As a pro, he projects more as a slot guy or a "move" type of Z-receiver. Where he goes will depend on who doesn't have concerns about his lack of size at the next level. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Marvin Harrison

Jaylen Waddle, Alabama. 5-10, 182 lb, 4.39

A four star recruit coming out of high school in Texas, Waddle produced 18 catches and 13 scores in his first two seasons. Then started last year hotter than a Guatemalan Insanity Pepper, with four straight 100 yard games before missing all but a few snaps in the title game with an ankle injury. He's considered the best route runner in the Class of '21, with good release, followed by fluid acceleration, pure speed, and the ability to get into his breaks without having to gear down. (Which is the way we used to talk about cars in ads where they're driving on wet roads by masculine, stylish men. Before they all ended up being about how many kids you can fit in the back and how relaxing the sound system is. I miss my old America. But I digress.) That skill set makes him a dynamic playmaker on the entire route tree: short, intermediate and vertical. And you can utilize his ability to make people miss in your Jet Sweep packages. If there are questions, they're about his relative lack of experience and how much of his ability to find space was because Smith was drawing the coverage. But he won't drop out of the 1st round by any means. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Tyreek Hill

The Next Tier: 

Kadarius Toney, Florida. 5-11, 189 lb, 4.43

Toney is one of those versatile multi-tools with the set of pliers, screwdriver and bottle opener that all fold into the handle. A former high school quarterback who went from 10 catches in 2019 to 70 last year, with 460 career rushing yards and experience returning kicks. He had some huge games against top schools, such as his 180 yards against LSU and 150 against Bama. He's better after the catch than anyone on this list. He's got lateral quickness and advanced footwork work pivot, option and angle routes underneath, and break back on the ball after running off a defender. Plus the explosiveness to made himself a legitimate deep threat. And the toughness to fight through contact, which he'll need as a pro because there's some question about how well he's able to get free of jams at the line. For some team who can't get their grubby picks on one of the top three, Toney might end up being that McLaurin-type steal. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Deebo Samuel

Rashod Bateman, Minnesota. 6-2, 210 lb, 4.55

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Bateman is another big YAC guy, as he showed in 2019 with 60 catches for over 1,200 yards and 11 TDs. Last year, like a lot of guys, he opted out. Then, like very few guys, opted back in. In five games after returning he caught 36 balls for 476 yards. Minnesota didn't run a particularly complex passing offense, so his routes were somewhat limited. He's not physically imposing and maybe could grow more into an NFL-caliber frame. He's a more of a long strider once he gets going, but is sudden and explosive off the snap. With his strong hands and a vertical leap that would've been fun to watch at the Indianapolis Kennel Club, he wins a lot of 50/50 balls with his ability to high point. He might need time to develop into a more involved scheme than the one he's used to, but he's an intriguing Day 2 prospect. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Michael Thomas

Terrace Marshall, LSU. 6-4, 200 lb, 4.46

Dad joke: At my school, Terrace Marshall is what you became if you couldn't cut it in the Hall Monitor force. With that out of the way, here's yet the latest model off the LSU wideout assembly line. He was such a standout in high school that he was one of the most recruited players in his state even though he missed his whole senior year with an injury. He became the Tigers WR1 after Jefferson left and Chase opted out, and was good for 104.4 yards per game. He's got the prototype length and speed pro personnel guys love. He's a fluid, easy runner. He's shown a disturbing proclivity for focus drops, especially on the easy, short ones, while making the tough ones at top levels. He'll also use his size, power, and willingness to stick his nose in to help out in the run game. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Denzel Mims

Slot Guys:

Elijah Moore, Ole Miss. 5-9, 184 lb, 4.53

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Another product of a Wide Receiver Manufacturing Plant school, ou might remember Moore from such Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalties as the one he drew against Mississippi State in 2019. But then probably not, since last year pretty much deleted that file. In just eight games he caught 86 balls (breaking AJ Brown's school record) for almost 1,200 yards. He played both as a boundary-X receiver at Ole Miss and in the slot, showing the precise route running, separation and deep ball speed to get open from multiple spots. He also returned both punts and kicks. As you'd imagine from a 5-9 guy who's done all that, he's tough enough physically and mentally to run the dirty routes in the heart of defenses and a willingness to hold onto the ball after contact and fight through tackles. He's versatile enough to play multiple roles, but projects as the best pure slot receiver in this bunch. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Antonio Brown

Amari Rodgers, Clemson. 5-10, 212, 4.50 

Here's another guy who was schemed all over the place but who seems to most like he's best suited for the slot. After Tee Higgins went pro, he graduated to Clemson's WR1 and produced 77 catches and just north of 1,000 yards. The thing that jumps out first at you is his build, which is the general shape of the cube van that drops off packages to your door. He's lined up in the backfield to catch screens and wheel routes, as well as orbital reverses. Anything to get the ball in his hands and let him make plays on his own. He's got a lot of positive traits to go with that stocky frame, including sudden movement and change of direction. He's got the field vision to hit open spaces when he's at full speed. Though the majority of his catches are inside of 10 yards, he can also get vertical over the tops of corners. It'll be interesting to see what he can do if he lands somewhere with a creative offensive coordinator who can scheme the ball to him. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Christian Kirk

Tutu Atwell, Louisville. 5-9, 165 lb, 4.40

A versatile athlete and yet another HS quarterback, Atwell became a full time starter in 2019 and tore it up, setting school records and leading the ACC with almost 1,300 yards and 12 TDs, good for 18.2 yards per reception. He's small but has an extra gear that he can get to without going through all his regular gears. He's not going to be able to fight off stronger corners in coverage, so he runs himself open with elite start/stop ability. He'll be there probably on Day 3 for anyone willing to bring him along for a season or two. And get him on the league approved protein powders.

Compares to the other leading brand: Hollywood Brown

Small School Sleepers:

D'Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan. 5-9, 188, 4.39

This group is lousy with athletes versatile enough to have played QB in high school. But get a load of this guy. As a senior in 2019, he started at wideout and at corner, like it's the leather helmet days and he's Bronko Nagurski. Or it's youth football and his dad is the coach. And he played both well enough that if he'd stayed at corner, he still might have gotten drafted. After breaking his collarbone (who would've guessed a guy who played every snap of the game might break down eventually), he took a medical redshirt and came back for 2020. A quick-twitch type of player, made a lot of catches on slants and turned them into huge gains. He's got Spongebob limbs and will need to add some extra leg days, but he's an explosive route runner who could develop. And may be able to contribute in the return game from Day 1. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Andy Isabella

Jaelon Darden, North Texas. 5-9, 174 lb, 4.46

Darden is one of those prospects who, when you start to type his name into the YouTube search bar, you have to get all the way through it and most of North Te---" before you get the prompt. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in agility and elusiveness. He's able to flip his hips and turn defenders around to get open. He's another guy with outstanding lateral quickness to run himself open on option routes and pivots from the slot. For teams on a budget who don't have the draft capital to go after a Jaylen Waddle, this knock off brand will be a cheap, economical substitute. 

Compare to the other leading brand: Tyreek Hill Jaylen Waddle Lite

The Perfect Patriot: Besides the obvious choices of any other first three, who won't be available, from the perspective of need, system fit and availability, I love Kadarius Toney. For his size, versatility, toughness. I could see him contributing as a rookie, but mostly being developed to be the next great slot guy in the proud tradition of Edelman, Welker and Troy Brown. He should be attainable in that sweet spot of the 2nd round where they love to move around and where so many recent standout receivers have been found. Should the market get crazy and there's a run at the position, I like Elijah Moore as a quality fallback option. But Toney is the guy. Book it.


Earlier Previews:

Quarterbacks