Earlier in the week, I did a preview of the slot receivers in the 2022 draft. As I explained, even though the line between slot WRs and boundary receivers is getting more obscured all the time, I think there is still enough of a delineation in the Patriots system, and both are an area of need. And with this being a particularly deep receiver class overall, it lends itself to putting them into separate categories.
Current roster (all receivers): Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor, N'Keal Harry, Ty Montgomery, Kristian Wilkerson, Malcolm Perry
Positional overview: In broad terms last season, Agholor was the primary X-receiver, split outside the numbers on 90.1% of the snaps he took, and with Bourne as the Z-receiver, splitting his time 61.9% outside and 37.1% in the slot. Agholor is entering the final year of his two-year deal, while Bourne has two years left on his. So at least one and probably both will need to be replaced soon, and by someone who'll be under team control for the foreseeable future.
At the risk of repeating myself (a gamble I'm always willing to make), the argument that Bill Belichick can't draft wideouts deserves to be countered with the fact that with the notable exception of Harry, they have never emphasized this position in Belichick's 22 New England drafts. Of the just 18 wideouts (and that number includes Matthew Slater), 10 were selected in the fourth round or later, eight were taken in Round 5 or later, and SIX came to us in Round 7. So unless you're still super upset about PK Sam not working out, you need to get over it and accept that WR have rarely ever been a point of emphasis.
When it has been, here again is the description of Belichick's type, from the 1990s memo to his Browns personnel staff:
This fits the Tinder profile of a lot of receivers worth swiping right for in an A+ 2022 class. In what order you like them or where you think the value is specific to your team's scheme and needs. And while top-tier receivers become more of a need as offenses emphasize the spread more and more, it remains the second most difficult position to evaluate. Receivers who put up huge numbers in the FBS get to the pros and slap at perfectly thrown spirals like they just made a GI Jane 2 joke. John Ross still holds the Combine 40-yard dash record, was a top 10 pick 2017, but has 62 career receptions and a catches balls at a rate of 43.4%. DK Metcalf broke the combine and was the ninth WR selected. The Pats took Harry for his physicality and ability to win contested catches. Only to find out too late the reason he had so many contested catches at ASU because he struggles to get open. Wideout is the crappiest of draft crapshoots. But look at the teams that went deep in the 2021 postseason, and across the board they had at least one, and in some cases several, elite wide receivers. With all that in mind:
The Presumptive First Receivers Off the Board:
Garrett Wilson, Ohio State. 6-foot-0, 183 pounds, 4.38 40-yard dash
Wilson won't get voted any of the superlatives in the Class of '22 yearbook, but his name appears highest on the most big boards because has the highest floor of any of his peers. He's got the short area quickness to create separation, change of direction, flexible hips and the build to fight through contact. Despite the fact he nearly doubled the production of his first two seasons with 70 catches, over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns, his game needs some refinement. But get him the ball in space and he's one of the best yards after catch guys in the draft.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Calvin Ridley
Drake London, USC. 6-4, 219 lbs, 4.49
Talk about London (which sounds more like a David Bowie lyric than a draft prospect intro) and one of the first things that comes up is always his basketball background. And how much of his hoops experience is part of his game. High pointing catches. Using his size to box out defenders. His size. His big catch point. It comes up so often you start to picture him getting position under the goalposts, hauling down lob passes, hitting the turnaround and then bitching to the refs that he should've gotten the And 1. And he used those skills as the boundary X-receiver for the Trojans, with 1,000+ yards and seven TDs. But he has so much of a N'Keal Harry feel to his game. Like he could N'Crater against NFL competition. Again, contested catches are great, but it's fair to why he wasn't getting open? He's limited by his lack of separation and elite route running ability. Still, he's got the best hands in the class to go along with that size, so he's going early.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Marques Colston
Other Potential First Rounders the Patriots Have Met With:
Jameson Williams, Alabama. 6-2, 179 lbs, 4.35
The Pats met with Williams at the Lucas Oil Olympics and Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia personally attended Bama's Pro Day. He'd likely be a Top 10 overall pick had he not blown out his ACL in the National Title game. But the latest reports show him moving without any restrictions and he's expected to be running again by the draft. Regardless of when he's back to full speed, by the start of camp or midway through the season, a healthy Williams is a game-changer who had nearly 1,600 yards and 15 TDs before becoming the Poster Child for elite prospects sitting out bowl games. He combines big play ability with the versatility to lineup all over the formation and the competitiveness hang onto passes after taking big hits. The questions about him involve his size and whether he'll have the play strength to fight through traffic over the middle. He transferred from Ohio State, and Belichick loves him some transfers. But the fact he didn't distinguish himself at all in a deep Buckeyes depth chart is a thing that makes some pundits go "Hmm." But his skills as an explosive deep threat are not in doubt.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: AJ Green
Chris Olave, Ohio State. 6-0, 187 lbs, 4.39
There might be more disagreement on Olave than anyone on this list. Some draft gurus have been projecting him to New England since the process began. Others question whether he's anything more than a WR2, which in my opinion, the Pats are lousy with. Olave's speed speaks for itself, and his ability to create separation, even in the quick passing game, jumps out on the film. He's flat out the best route runner here, crisp and efficient in his movements. A legit outside-the-numbers deep threat who played at a high level with different quarterbacks. And yet … And yet he never reached 1,000 yards in his career. Has absolutely no physicality to his game. And while he would've been a high first rounder if he'd come out last year, he went back to school for his senior season and did nothing to improve his stock. I don't see him as a Patriots type. But if he ends up here, I call dibs on the "O'Lave" t-shirts.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Terry McLaurin
Treylon Burks, Arkansas. 6-2, 225 lbs, 4.55
Some draftperts have Burks as the No. 1 receiver prospect on their board, and it's not hard to see why. His athletic profile comes along but once every few years, and fits today's NFL. He's got the size/speed combo to compete against cornerbacks who, coincidentally, possess the size/speed combo to match up with the likes of him. But he shows an easy speed for flipping corners and winning vertically. Like an ever increasing number of NFL wideouts (Deebo Samuel, Cordarelle Patterson), Burks was used in the backfield to take advantage of his unique abilities. He's big enough and has the lower half strength to fight through contact. And as demonstrated by his long touchdown against Alabama, he's got the speed to run away from practically anyone. Those two traits make him the best YAC receiver in the class.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: AJ Brown
Small School, Big Upside:
Christian Watson, North Dakota State. 6-4, 208 lbs, 4.36
The Patriots talked to Watson at the Senior Bowl, where he had been invited on the strength of an 800-yard, seven touchdown season. But he first started getting noticed when scouts came out to NDSU to look at Trey Lance. Like Burks, the Bisons used Watson in the backfield, in motion, in the slot and basically anywhere they could think of to utilize his size and speed. The obvious risk is that he looked so good against FCS competition and will struggle to make the jump. Plus he's not as polished when it comes to running routes, stacking corners, reading coverages and so, since he's been able to get by on his sheer physical superiority. But he's a specimen with a high motor who showed enough against the top competition during Senior Week practices to move up a lot of big boards.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Tyrell Williams
An Unlikely Second Rounder:
George Pickens, Georgia. 6-3, 195 lbs, 4.47
I use that word because Pickens only played in four games last year, with five receptions and 107 yards total (with 52 of those coming on one catch in the National Title game), after making eight starts in 2020. But those four games were at the end of the season after rehabbing from a knee injury in the spring. Still, he was a five-star, Top 10 recruit out of high school for a reason. A lot of reasons, in fact. His size and speed, to name two. His play strength to win 50/50 balls and his ability to gain separation are two others. He's shown elite ball skills and a catch radius like Vitruvian Man (NSFW, science). And has put up some huge games against top competition, like his 12-catch, 175-yard destruction of Baylor in 2020. Though the obvious questions involve his relative lack of experience and his injury proneness. Which makes him as unattractive to risk-averse teams as it makes him attractive to GMs who love a good value pick with high upside. And you know which category GM Bill falls into.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: DeVante Parker
Potential Middle Round Value Picks:
David Bell, Purdue. 6-1, 212 lbs, 4.65
Bell is another basketball player, with the interesting (though utterly useless for our purposes) distinction of going undefeated in two sports in high school. More relevantly, he started as a freshman and has been crazy productive since. After Rondale Moore got hurt and then declared for the draft, Bell was elevated to WR1. And made the most of his shot, finishing his career with 96 catches for 1,286 yards and six touchdowns in just 11 games. In two seasons, he had just one game with less than 50 receiving yards and 11 with 100+. He's not a guy who wins with his superior athleticism, as evidenced by the stopwatch. Instead he relies on his physicality, long frame and hands. That Belichick memo says the first thing a receiver needs to do is get off the line, and that is Bell's strength. Depending on whom you get your scouting from, he's the best in this draft at it. Fool! Your Press Corner School is no match for his Boilermaker Hand Fighting Technique! While I hate to bring up the comparison, but like Harry, he was among the slowest at his position in the 40 at Indy (just 0.01 from being the slowest). But he posted the eighth fastest time in the Patriots personal favorite, the 3-Cone Drill. Which makes Bell all the more intriguing as a potential Friday or even Saturday pick.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Zay Jones
Alec Pierce, Cincinnati. 6-3, 211 lbs, 4.41
Not surprisingly for the child of two Northwestern athletes (football and volleyball) Pierce lettered in four sports in high school before making the Bearcats as a special teamer. Once he got snaps on offense, he was averaging 18.5 yards per reception before getting hurt four games in. Last year he bounced back with 52 catches, 884 yards, 17.0 YPC and seven touchdowns. His impressive 40-time is more a result of his build-up speed, his so-called "Flying 20," than short area quickness. But his cuts are precise enough make a finish carpenter weep, making him a legitimate deep threat.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Nico Collins
Fastest Offensive Player in the Class of 2022:
Tyquan Thornton, Baylor. 6-2, 181 lbs, 4.28
Thornton is worth mentioning if for no reason other than what he did while sprinting up a sideline in shorts at the Miss Indy Pageant. But we always have to grade on a scale here. If he was 6-2, 225 pounds, then that sub-4.3 would be otherworldly. At 181 pounds, it's just self-preservation. Like a majestic deer being able to out run predators. Which he did, against the best competition in the FBS. And while staying healthy for all of 2019 and 2021 while going up against SEC defenders is a testament to his toughness, it's reasonable to doubt how much he'll able to hold up at the next level without a steady diet of protein shakes. Still, with speed as rare as his, it's hard to imagine him not coming off the board early on draft weekend.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Tiquan Underwood
Likely Weekend Pick the Patriots Have Shown a Lot of Interest In:
Romeo Doubs, Nevada. 6-2, 208 lbs, 4.50
The Patriots met with Doubs at the Senior Bowl, and then had a second date at the Combine. Tell me if this reminds you of anyone: Doubs has spent time both as a quarterback and a returner. In fact, the first time he ever touched the ball he took a punt back for an 80-yard score. But while he's got some of the same skills as youknowwho, he's bigger and faster, with an ideal NFL wide receiver size profile. With the college production to match. He started nine games as a freshman, posting 562 yards on 43 catches. Then in 2020 was one of the most prolific wideouts in the country, with 58 receptions, 1,002 yards (111.3 yards per game), and nine touchdowns. Then upped that to 80-1,109-11 last year. All while still being the Wolf Pack's primary punt returner. He's good at using his hands to get off the line and has good lateral agility. He doesn't have the best hands, often double-clutching balls. But the numbers don't lie; he was the one Nevada looked to. Witness his insane 19-catch performance against Fresno State.
Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Marvin Jones
The Perfect Patriot: Williams. I'm tempted to go against everything I've been thinking since last season and at the last minute change this pick. Based simply on Williams relative lack of size. And the fact I picked his also-knee damaged teammate John Metchie III in my preview of slot receivers. But Williams has got one of those frames that lends itself to adding bulk, and there's a lot to be said for giving Mac Jones teammates he is already familiar with. Not to mention the Pats have a history of not caring if you have surgically repaired knee ligaments, actually preferring them to the knees God gave you. Between his game changing ability, his ceiling and his membership in the Church of Saban, Williams checks more boxes than anyone.
Whom the Patriots Will Select: Here's where this gets tricky. If he's still there when they're selecting at No. 21, it's Williams. But all bets are off on how many WRs are going early in this one, and in what order. If other teams see what I see, his medicals all check out, or there's someone simply willing to wait for his full recovery, he could easily go off the board in the first 20 picks. If that's the case, Burks will be a tremendous Plan B. Finally, it's hard not to see being interest in Bell as a mid-round pick in that sweet spot where they got Malcolm Mitchell a few years ago. But my choice is Jameson Williams. Book it.