Patriots 2022 Draft Preview: Slot Receiver

Adam Glanzman. Getty Images.

And so it begins. 

I've been doing Patriots draft previews here in one form or another since at least the mid-2000s. In that time I've managed to successfully predict a dozen or so of their selections. From as far back as Brandon Spikes, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung and that tight end from Florida - whatshisname - to Dominque Easley and Joejuan Williams to Mac Jones and several others. The point being that you don't get to become The Belichick Whisperer without a track record. And I will put my record up against anybody's in the business. 

I've been more successful than anyone in the business, but it hasn't come easy. It's the result of years of obsessively studying the man's history, his tendencies, his needs, and above all his type, at every position on the draft board. Again I say, I don't pretend to know how other GMs operate. I don't do mock drafts. I just have a keen interest in this one man. We share that bond that comes from all the times I've interviewed him, and the common experience of him being the greatest coach that's ever existed and me being the assistant defensive coach on a youth football JV squad. What else would we need in order to have this unique connection we share? 

So here is the first in a series. First up: Slot receivers. 

Current roster (all receivers): Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor, N'Keal Harry, Ty Montgomery, Kristian Wilkerson, Malcolm Perry

Positional overview: This year, for the first time ever, I'm splitting the wide receiver prospects into two groups, boundary receivers and slot guys. I do so even as I acknowledge that those lines get blurred more and more with each passing season. But I think it's warranted because both are such an area of need for the Pats this year and beyond. And also because there's so much depth in both groups in this particular draft class. In fact, I can honestly say I've put more work into receivers this year than any position group in any draft ever. 

From the time of Troy Brown through to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman and now Meyers, the Erhardt-Perkins system has run through the slot. With a heavy reliance on a quick, precise, tough route runner, working with a tight end to stress the middle of a defense by stretching the triangle zone created by the defensive end, corner and the linebacker/strong safety. Meyers has been the leading receiver on this team each of the last two seasons. And this year lined up in the slot a team-high 65.6% of snaps, to just 37.1% for Bourne. Bourne is back this year on a restricted free agent deal, and has exceeded expectations over his career. But so far he's not be the elite threat that opposing coaches have to account for the way his predecessors have been. And since the Class of 2022 has talent at the top as well as depth, now is the perfect time to shop at this market. 

As a reminder, here is how Belichick described what he looks for in all receivers back when he was running the Cleveland Browns back in the 1990s:

 The game has evolved, but there's no evidence to suggest his priorities when it comes to scouting this position have.

There will without a doubt be some disagreement as to which of these prospects should be considered slot receivers and which belong in the broader category of positionless wideouts. This is just how I've generally seem them categorized. And every team will evaluate these guys based on their own needs and system fits. So just keep in mind these are not anything etched in stone for all eternity. It takes all my energy just to type into a keyboard. If you disagree, don't come at me like I just made a joke about your wife's hair. (All 40-times are from earlier reports on the guys who didn't run at the Combine.) 

The Potential First Rounders:

Jahan Dotson, Penn State. 5-foot-11, 178 pounds, 4.43 40-yard dash

Let me start in on the best slot receiver in this class by trying not to pigeonhole Dotson. Because he has made a lot of draft pundits' lists of the Top 5-7 receivers of any varietal after lining up a lot outside for the Nittany Lions. He's more of a movement receiver who can play slot, X or Z, or motion from one to the other. The thing about him that impresses the scouting intelligentsia about Doston most is that, unlike a lot of WRs in this class, he had to fight for every catch due to the fact that between his quarterback and his fellow wideouts, he had zero help. Defenses came at him like Eastern European henchmen taking runs at John Wick, and he still won the battles. Consider Chris Olave of Ohio State (more about him when I do the regular wide receivers) who had talent all around him, Dotson was a one man gang. He's tough over the middle. Makes catches with body control and elite hands. And obviously can run and gain yards after the catch. Though generally speaking his ceiling seems to be as somebody's WR2, he could be an elite No. 2. What I do know is that wherever he ends up, some blogger is going to get to be the 1,000th person writing about him who'll get to say, "Dotson! Dotson! We've got Dotson here!" And I'll be jealous.

Compares to other leading brand: Elijah Moore

Skyy Moore, Western Michigan. 5-10, 195 lbs, 4.41

Based on size alone, Moore projects as much more (Moore? Nope. Do better, Old Balls.) of a pure slot resident. He was a standout for all three years at Kalamazoo against MAC-level competition, finishing his final season with 94 catches, 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, with no less than three games of 150+ yards. His position in this draft is based on the production for sure, but also for his demonstrable abilities to get off the line and win contested catches. The doubt comes into play when trying to decide if he'll be able to gain separation at the next level. But his ballsiness when in comes to working the middle of a defense against feral maniacs playing in the box is not in doubt whatsoever.

Compares to other leading brand: DJ Foster

Probable Second and Third Rounders:

John Metchie III, Alabama. 5-11, 187 lbs, 4.51

Fortunately for them, 'Bama has a tradition of developing elite talent at wide receiver. Unfortunately for them, they have another tradition that involves those talented wideouts getting hurt in their final season. Fortunately for Metchie, he got an opportunity when Jaylen Waddle got hurt in 2020, and made the most of it. Unfortunately, after putting up close to 100 catches and 1,100 yards, he carried on that second tradition by blowing out his ACL in the SEC title game in early December. But he insists he'll be ready to go when NFL training camps start. However far that knee issue has him dropping remains to be seen, but the team that takes the chance on him will get a bargain. Metchie has all the traits. He's not just a refined route-runner with a lot of nuance to his game and a highly developed ability to set up defenders with his technique, he's a tough, aggressive blocker in the run game. He's shown the ability to be a threat at all three levels of a defense, including in vertical routes. Though his true talent is in the short and quick stuff, with the scheme awareness to react when the ball has to come out fast. Which basically requires a receiver to have that indefinable bond with his quarterback that the truly great slot guys always seem to have. And makes it worth noting that the QB Metchie first got the opportunity to mesh with back in 2020 was Mac Jones.

Compares to other leading brand: Robert Woods

The Trackletes:

Wan'Dale Robinson, Kentucky. 5-8, 178 lbs, 4.44

Robinson is a pure gadget player who will not only probably be a big special teams contributor, but can be moved all around the formation. A track star who scored an inhuman 97 touchdowns in high school in Kentucky, he got recruited as a hybrid WR/RB at Nebraska before returning to play in his home state. His coach at Kentucky is a twig off the Sean McVay coaching tree, who used him in a variety of roles. He's got an ability to use his returner skills to gain separation and make people miss in the open field. It's just that, while no one seems to question his toughness and willingness to stick his nose all up in defenders' business, they do question whether his lack of size will stand up to the relentless beating he'll no doubt be subjected to. But for a creative coach who's willing to find creative coach ways to get him the ball in space, he could be a real asset.

Compares to other leading brand: Braxton Berrios

Calvin Austin III, Memphis. 5-8, 170 lbs, 4.32

Austin was another track star who won nine state titles and was all-AAC in both track and football. Though it took him three seasons before he really contributed much in sports ball. But when he did, he was able to put up back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, averaging over 16 yards per reception and 19 touchdowns over that span. As you'd well imagine, he's got insane acceleration once he gets into the open field. It's the whole business of the getting into the open field that's the trick, given his Hobbit size. And while common sense might tell you that all he needs to do is sacrifice a little speed for some size, he reportedly consumes pasta like the guy who represented "Gluttony" in SE7EN (that is, before his chest cavity burst open all over the tablecloth) and Austin still doesn't gain weight. While I can envy (another of John Doe's victims, coincidentally) his body metabolism as I continue to try and work off my New Year's Eve Chinese food, when it comes to a guy who is barely 170 lbs trying to fight off press coverage from 200 lb corners? Better him than me.

Compares to other leading brand: Isaiah McKenzie

A Solid Day 3 Guy:

Kyle Phillips, UCLA. 5-11, 189 lbs, 4.58

Phillips fits all the stereotypes of the slot receiver, back before they started taking over pro football and making Davante Adams/Tyreek Hill money. Dependable. Reliable. Your QB's security blanket, etc., etc. He's about 15 years removed from being called "scrappy" or "a coach on the field." His production didn't blow your kilt up, but he was often the Bruins' first read and delivered, with 59 catches and 739 yards last year. And was a go-to red zone target, with 10 touchdowns. So what the hell, let's just lean into the cliche' of the old school slot guy and make this tired old analogy:

Compares to other leading brand: Wayne Chrebet

Gentlemen For You Size Queens:

Khalil Shakir, Boise State. 6-0, 196, 4.43

Like Phillips, Shakir is nobody's idea of an elite athlete. What he is is a piece you can move around the board looking for matchups he can exploit. At Boise State they called him "Swiss," presumably for his multi-faceted gifts and not the holes in his game. They lined him up wide, in tight, and in the backfield, right from the start of his career. In fact, in 14 games in 2019, he had 74 receptions for 872 yards and six receiving touchdowns, added 66 more yards and three TDs on the ground, and threw a TD pass. By last season, those receiving totals were up to 77 catches, 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns, with another 178 rushing yards and over 10 YPA. He's a smooth enough route runner, although still lacking polish, which he will have to develop as he goes. Still, he could be an asset for a coach with the creativity to utilize his skills they way they did in Boise.

Compares to other leading brand:  Diontae Johnson

Velus Jones Jr., Tennessee. 6-0, 204 lbs, 4.31

The second fastest receiver at the Indianapolis Kennel Show, Jones used that speed on special teams to make multiple All Conference teams at USC before transferring. He's not as polished a route-runner as you'd expect from a guy coming out of his sixth year. But I guess you can admire his want-to, finally putting together a draftable season after all these tries with two major programs. He's definitely someone who could make a roster on the basis of his kick returns, with the potential for someone to coach up his size/speed traits into a productive slot receiver. But for all that speed, it's tough to project someone with his limited production and catch radius being an outside-the-numbers deep threat.

Compares to other leading brand: Devin Duvernay

Sleeper:

Bo Melton, Rutgers. 5-11, 189 lbs, 4.34

It almost sounds like I'm reaching for a punchline here. "Guy from Rutgers? Watch Belichick move up to take him in the Top 10." And it might have started out that way, but I assure you I am not kidding. There were three wideouts who ran sub-4.35s at the Lucas Oil Olympics. And three who ran under the Patriots preferred number of 7.0 in their beloved 3-Cone drill. Melton did both. He comes from good Rutgers stock as his father played football and his mother basketball for the Scarlet Knights. But he's no mere legacy as he was heavily recruited to pledge the frats of Michigan and Ohio State as well. Overall, he sort of falls into the mean of all slot receivers in terms of average size, speed, athleticism and route-running (where he shows a bad habit for rounding off and his routes instead of making sharp cuts. And there's some question as to whether he's gotten all he can out of his skill set. Still, he's a five year player who posted a career high 55 receptions (with 618 yards) last season, and has experience returning punts and in the running game. Most of all, he was twice voted captain and his coaches can't shut up about his work ethic and leadership. That is a lot of items on Belichick's punch list for one prospect.

Compares to other leading brand: Randall Cobb

Late Round Flyer Candidates:

Slade Bolden, Alabama. 5-11, 193 lbs, 4.66

Bolden has spent four years in Tuscaloosa, clawing his way up through a depth chart loaded with first round talent, until finally making it to the middle in 2021. Essentially the Tide's third or fourth option, with 42 receptions, 408 yards and three touchdowns, all career highs. In those four years he worked with all past and future first round QBs, and was able to mesh well with them all, despite the superior athletes standing next to him in the same huddle. In part because of his toughness between the hash marks, and also his outstanding hands. Take all the cliches used on Phillips and apply them here. And because Bolden himself has made this obvious comparison, I won't deny him here:

Compares to other leading brand: Julian Edelman

Jarreth Sterns, Western Kentucky. 5-7, 183 lbs, 4.51

While Stearns is a borderline late pick/UDFA, after transferring from Houston Baptist, his production for the Hilltoppers was so surreal that I can't in good conscience leave him off this list. In one season in the FBS he caught 150 Bailey Zappe passes for 1,902 yards with 17 touchdowns. More incredibly, 1,156 of those yards came after the catch, which was best in the nation by over 300 yards. Most incredibly? In 155 catchable passes, he had a total of three drops. If you can't take a seventh round shot on a guy with those kinds of numbers, there ought to be an investigation. 

Compares to other leading brand: Jakeem Grant


Perfect Patriot: Metchie. Teams are doing this more and more, reuniting their franchise quarterbacks with their college teammates. Justin Herbert and Ja'Marr Chase. Tua Tagovailoa and Jaylen Waddle. Jalen Hurts and Devonta Smith. Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. With largely positive results. So putting the 2020 National Champs band back together seems like a natural. Metchie agrees:

Coming to New England would give Metchie the time to bring his knee all the way back as he works his way into the lineup behind Meyers and in the Patriots subpackages. And like Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Dont'a Hightower before them, it would a be natural transition, going from no-BS, all-powerful Sith Lord coach to no-BS, all-powerful Sith Lord coach, driving him to succeed. 

Whom the Patriots Will Draft: Metchie. Generally speaking, Metchie is projected to go in the late second round and perhaps fall into the early third. That tees him up perfectly for New England with the 22nd pick in the second round, 54th overall. In fact, if they're really feeling it, they could conceivably move down, add a pick, and still get their guy. Failing that, one could easily see them waiting until the weekend to take Bo Melton, for all the obvious reasons. Everyone talks about how they can't draft wide receivers (and Lord knows, N'Keal Harry has spent three years helping their argument), while ignoring the fact that about half the wideouts they've selected have been in Rounds 5-7. That's where Melton should go. And there could be no better fit than Foxboro. And don't sleep on the idea of Slade Bolden in either the final round, or as a camp invitee. But it's Metchie all the way.