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Patriots 2023 Draft Preview: Receivers

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It's that time of year again. A tradition unlike any other. The Belichick Whisperer [tm] who has brought you such successful Patriots draft forecasts as Mac Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Dominique Easley, that tight end from Florida whatshisname, and a half dozen or so others, comes off last year's shutout to once again bring you the most accurate prognostication in the Patriots Draft Punditry game. Once again I offer you my annual disclosure that I only do these in terms of the Pats, their system, their fits, and their way of assessing talent. I don't do mock drafts. I would no sooner presume to know how Arizona or Washington draft than to tell you which stocks to invest in or whom you should ask out. Somewhere out there are bloggers covering the other 31 teams and I let them sort out their own hash. Just remember I'll put my record up against anybody's in the biz.

This year I'm starting with a position I've traditionally downplayed: Wide receiver.

Positional overview: In the Belichick Era, New England has invested less capital at wide receiver than any team in the league. This is GM Bill's 23rd draft. And in the previous 22, he's taken a total of 19 wideouts. And that number not only includes Matthew Slater, whose one career catch came 12 seasons ago, more than half of those picks, 11, came in Rounds 4-7. Everyone loves to invoke their bad record when it comes to scouting this position, while ignoring the fact they're always doing their shopping on Saturday and Sunday. 

But there has been a shift over the last few years. N'Keal Harry cemented his position as the worst personnel move in GM Bill's career, and Tyquan Thornton is still an unknown quantity. But the fact they were each selected with top 50 picks signals that the team philosophy about the wideout spot has shifted from one of indifference to one of emphasis. Plus they've added some veterans. Seem to be kicking the tires on some others. And used up a big percentage of their prospect meetings to talk to receivers. The league has changed to the point where the teams in the conference title games all have elite WRs, and the Pats personnel department has been watching those games along with the rest of us. The people who've spent two decades clamoring for them to draft their quarterback some "weapons" are going to be getting their wish more and more as we go forward. 

As a refresher, this is the memo that came from Belichick's Cleveland teams back in the early 1990s. His emphasis on the position may have changed, but the traits he looks for in a receiver are still the same:

Current roster: DeVante Parker, Juju Smith-Shuster, Tyquan Thornton, Kendrick Bourne, Ty Montgomery, Tre Nixon, two men reported to be Raleigh Webb and Lynn Bowden, Jr. 

Certified 1st Rounders the Pats Have Met With:

Quentin Johnson, TCU. 6-foot-3, 208 pounds, 4.38 40-time

Patriots scouts met with Johnson at the Combine, despite the fact he's not likely to still be on the board anywhere close to where they're selecting, at No. 14. He's often listed at 6-4, but however you measure him, he's a freakish combination of size and speed who lined up all over the Horned Frogs' formation as he made first team All Big 12 the last two seasons after finishing his freshman year with back-to-back 100 yard games. He's played in 3X1 sets as both the single and the boundary X in the trips formations, inside and out in 2X2s, and as a motion man. He's the best in his class when it comes to releasing off the line, with the Moves Like Jagger to defeat press and the long strided acceleration to eat up the cushion in off coverage. If there's a knock on Johnson (and if you've ever had your Johnson knocked on … sorry) it's that his route tree at TCU was somewhat limited, so he's not a refined route runner yet. And he drops too many catchable balls. Plus he was used more as a vertical threat than asked to run into traffic much. But if a receivers coach can't work with the tools this guy comes to camp with, he's not worth the little plastic pea in his whistle. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Martavius Bryant

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State. 6-1, 196 lbs, 4.45

I was asked earlier who my top draft crush is with the draft just over three weeks away, and I said Smith-Njigba. Not just because of the interview he gave at Fenway while watching his brother Canaan play for the Pirates. Not merely because I want him and Juju to set an NFL record for most guys on one side of formation with a "Smith-" last name. Though there are those reasons. But more so, because he's such an ideal fit for Bill O'Brien's system. A 5-star recruit, in 2021 he outproduced last drafts' Top 11 picks Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, with the highest catch rate in the country at 84%. Of special interest in New England, he was basically the Buckeye's full time slot receiver, with 104 of his 113 targets coming from the inside. But in the Rose Bowl he went 50 yards for a score from the boundary, so he can line up outside the numbers as well. He was limited to just three games last year with hammy problems. But when healthy, he's the best in this group at YAC, with the acceleration of a Tesla Model S, but without the need to stop for an hour to charge up. He doesn't have the catch radius of a Quentin Johnson, but his game is more predicated on working between the hashes and giving you rate of return on high percentage throws. Like I said the other day when he was at Fenway, he posted the fastest time in Indy in the Pats beloved 3-Cone Drill, with a scorching 6.57. Anything under 7.00 and they'll be preparing the nameplate over your locker before its their turn to pick.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Julian Edelman. (Yup. I said it. No take backs, no quitsies.)

Jordan Addison, USC. 5-11, 173 lbs, 4.49

Addison was the Biletnikoff Award winner at Pittsburgh in 2021 before transferring. (That sentence chills every DI recruiter to the core of their being, so it cannot be repeated enough.) He came up just shy of 1,600 yards and had 17 TDs. And while he didn't come close to that in his one season at Southern Cal, did nothing to hurt his draft status. A three-level receiver, the Trojans used him extensively in the screen game, with 23 of his 59 total receptions coming on WR screens. Even while winning awards named for guys who look like they need to talk to their manager before meeting your price on a 1975 AMC Gremlin, Addison had a drops problem, with 21 over two seasons. But last year reduced that number (Dropped his drops? Too confusing.), to just two. The major concern with him is right there in italics above. There's not a lot of meat on his bones. But any team willing to get him on the league-approved protein supplement diet and wait for him to add mass will get the best, most efficient, most technically proficient route-runner in the class. The Patriots met with him both at the Lucas Oil Olympics and in a private workout. After drafting Thornton, it would appear they're into swiping right on the skinny types.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Jahan Dotson

Zay Flowers, Boston College. 5-9, 182, 4.42

A two-way recruit out of south Florida, Flowers had three highly productive seasons at The Heights, despite the notable lack of quarterbacking talent on the roster. Not the least of which was his final year, with 78 receptions on 124 targets, 1077 yards and 12 TDs. Patriots staff got to work him at the East-West Shrine Bowl, and again at his pro day. And according to people who were at BC, he blew the doors out of the practice facility. Despite his lack of size, he lined up as the X-receiver on 377 of his 506 passing snaps. His best trait is his route-running, with an ability to gain separation with start-and-stops, change of pace, change of direction, and elite lateral quickness. It's certainly legit to be concerned about his size; but with Bill Polian's 20 year old dream of outlawing pass defense finally coming to fruition, a lot of wideouts who would've once been too small to play are now simply too small to cover. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: TY Hilton

Your Top Day 2 Selections:

Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee. 6-0, 176 lbs, 4.40

After two injury-marred seasons for the Vols, Hyatt was finally healthy in 2022 and celebrated by winning the Biletnikoff with a monstrous 1,256 yard, 15 TDs, 18.9 YPR year. The vast majority of which came from the slot. And Nick Saban is still probably having stress dreams where he's trying to coach his defense to stop Hyatt, only to find he's only in his underpants, after getting torched for five TDs and 207 yards on only six receptions. He's a tracklete who was schemed open by Tennessee quite a bit, so the jury is out as to whether he can gain separation on his own against NFL defensive backs. Though they have to respect his speed, so running off corners and then breaking off routes is a specialty of his. But once he does get daylight between himself and coverage, it tends to be a home run. It would mean putting up with a lot of Boston Herald pun headlines about "Checking Into the Hyatt." And Celtics fans struggling to get used to another spelling for "Jaylen." But he could be available with their second pick or a slight move up. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: DeSean Jackson

Josh Downs, UNC. 5-9, 171 lbs, 4.48

Another smaller receiver who played almost exclusively in the slot, Downs saw the outside less than a house cat, with all but 80 of his nearly 1,000 snaps coming from inside the numbers. As a sophomore, he cracked 1,300 yards with eight touchdowns, then followed that up with just over 1,000 yards and 11 TDs. He's obviously limited by his size and catch radius, but attacks the ball to win more contested catches than he probably has any right to. His strong suit is pivot routes to shake defenders and find seams between zones, as opposed to getting over the tops of corners with high end speed. But that's always been a valuable skill in the Patriots attack since the Wes Welker days. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Kadarius Toney

A Couple of Options for All You Size Queens:

Jonathan Mingo, Ole Miss. 6-2, 220 lbs, 4.46

The Pats receiver room is really lacking in size, and Mingo would be a low-cost option to fill that role. Used all over the formation, including quite a bit as a sort of hybrid H-back, Mingo created mismatches and took advantage of them for 51 catches and 861 yards. He's also one of the few in this group who was a four-year starter, only missing some time as a junior with a busted foot. He's got good, strong hands. Though he'll probably have to run through coverage at the next level as he's not exactly the guy who's going to shake defenders with unstoppable footwork. But if you're looking for someone who can be a red zone target while being moved around to create size advantages (think Cordarelle Patterson), and I believe the Patriots are, they'll have plenty of chances to land him.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Anquan Boldin

Cedric Tillman, Tennessee. 6-3, 213 lbs, 4.54

Another size/strength combination, Tillman played almost exclusively outside the numbers, he was a rotational role player as a sophomore and missed time last year. But still demonstrated enough physicality to be considered a top 150 or so prospect. Mainly due to his powerful, sure hands that only dropped six catchable balls in his career. He's limited in his speed and route running. And he's not going to run away from anybody. But in a league that's going more toward smaller defenders, he might end up seeing a lot of safeties and linebackers and be able to win those matchups. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Michael Pittman, Jr. 

Sleeper Pick to Watch Out For:

Marvin Mims, Oklahoma. 5-11, 183 lbs, 4.38

I'll be the first to agree with you, that's it's an odd choice to call a guy a "Sleeper" when he just ran a sub-4.4 at the Indianapolis Rodeo. Plus he averaged almost 20 yards a reception for his at Oklahoma. But the Draft Punditry Class doesn't know what to do with him. The grades are all over the map. I've seen him listed in the top 110 picks, and as low as 200. He's a burnerobviously. And topped 1,000 yards last season. But one knock on him is that he lacks the play strength to stand up to NFL competition. Like on those 50/50 balls, you'd better have the Possession Arrow pointing your way. And that on most of his big gains, the Sooners schemed him open, more than he ran himself into space. Still, they drafted Thornton last year after he had the same knocks on him. Thornton is taller and has worked on adding weight. But I can definitely see Mims falling to a spot where he becomes a value pick GM Bill won't want to pass up. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Tyler Lockett

A Pair of Bearcats the Patriots Worked Out:

Tyler Scott, Cincinnati. 5-10, 177 lbs, 4.44

Tre Tucker, Cincinnati. 5-9, 182 lbs, 4.40

Two guys who, like Flowers, didn't have quality quarterbacks to work with, nevertheless produced. Scott was an exclusively outside receiver on the boundary side, in order to give him space to operate in and take advantage of his speed. He's also got soft hands and ability to snatch passes away from his body, but still had too many drops. Tucker is just like Scott, only more so. Smaller, faster, and with more drops. Both will probably end up with a team in the market for a return guy. But with that spot in New England seemingly occupied by Marcus Jones for the foreseeable future, either of these would probably just be a late round flyer, the way Nixon was. 

Small School Guys NE Went Out of its Way to Look At:

Ed Lee, Rhode Island. 5-10, 185

TJ Luther, Gardner-Webb. 6-1, 185

These two were beyond my capacity to get into. Or I simply lack the motivation. Either way, expect their names to show up on the UDFA camp invitee list

The Perfect Patriot: Smith-Njigba. I'm just not counting on him still being on the board at 14. And the price of moving up in the first half of Round 1 is prohibitively expensive. If he falls? Fantastic. But this is not a franchise that spends much time this low in the draft, and the sticker shock that comes with moving up is going to scare them off. Especially when there are good options available. 

Whom the Patriots Will Draft: Flowers.  Probably by dropping down from 14. Perhaps by moving up from 46. But I think they love Flowers as Discount Smith-Njigba. And as a guy who can develop into that WR1 they've been searching for since Edelman retired. Zay Flowers. Book it.