You may be aware that the Patriots haven’t had great success drafting receivers in the early rounds.
For varying reasons, Malcolm Mitchell, Aaron Dobson, Taylor Price, Josh Boyce, and Chad Jackson failed to last in the league beyond their rookie contracts. Those receivers were all selected by the Patriots in the top four rounds.
Obviously, the Julian Edelman pick has alleviated concerns about other misfires.
But are the struggles with drafting receivers unique to the Patriots? Or do they parallel the success rates across the league? Receiver seems to be a highly volatile position.
If we look at receivers drafted between 2006-2015, a 10-year window, here’s an examination of the success rates based on draft spot:
Top half of first round (15 players):
*93.3 percent played beyond their rookie contracts
*60 percent had at least one 1,000-yard season
*46.7 percent had multiple 1,000-yard seasons
Bottom half of first round (21 players):
*80.9 percent played beyond their rookie contracts
*52.4 percent posted at least one 1,000-yard season
*57.1 percent posted at least one 800-yard season
*33.3 percent posted multiple 1,000-yard seasons
Top half of second round (24 players):
*70.8 percent played beyond their rookie contracts
*41.7 percent posted at least one 500-yard season
*16.6 percent posted at least one 1,000-yard season
Bottom half of second round (18 players):
*55.5 percent played beyond their rookie contracts
66.7 percent posted at least one 500-yard season
*50 percent posted at least one 1,000-yard season
Third round (53 players):
*58.5 percent played beyond their rookie contracts
*45.3 percent posted at least one 500-yard season
*28.3 percent posted at least one 800-yard season
*11.3 percent posted at least one 1,000-yard season
*28.3 percent failed to reach 500 career yards
Fourth round (47 players):
*38.3 percent played beyond their rookie contracts
*29.8 percent posted at least one 500-yard season
*14.9 percent posted at least one 800-yard season
*4.2 percent posted at least one 1,000-yard season
*48.9 percent failed to reach 500 career yards
Few teams have consistently nailed their picks at this position. Even the ones with amazing track records, like the Steelers, have a few misses on the resume. Limas Sweed, a second-round pick in 2008, caught seven passes in a career that fizzled out after two seasons.
Overall, though, the Steelers have drafted and developed better than anyone: Mike Wallace (third round), Emmanuel Sanders (third round), Antonio Brown (sixth round), and JuJu Smith-Schuster (second round) were all great value picks in the past decade.
Earlier this offseason, I asked former Steelers receivers coach Richard Mann about the keys to developing young receivers.
He stressed a few factors: Older receivers in the program (in addition to coaches) preaching technique and fundamentals, a team’s ability to insert the player into a defined role that accentuates his strengths (Mann used the Patriots’ development of Edelman as an example), and the player’s ability to bounce back from missteps, which are inevitable.
The latter, he said, is why so many early-round receivers end up with short-lived NFL careers.
“If a guy was taken in the high rounds and they’re thrown into the fire real early and they don’t have any success, they (can) lose their confidence,” Mann said. “I’ve seen guys that were real good football players that go down the tube and they never make it. I know several guys that that happened to. I think that’s what happens to them.”
That could be part of what’s happened in New England, a notoriously difficult place to play. The other part might simply be the caliber of receivers the Patriots usually draft. Bill Belichick has never used a first-round pick on a wideout. As you see above, the hit rate on receivers in the third and fourth round is poor. Of the 100 players drafted in those rounds from 2006-15, 61 failed to turn in a 500-yard season.
LAST YEAR’S CLASS
Thanks to their maneuvering around the board and a few incoming compensatory picks, the Patriots are well-positioned to reload with a youth movement this spring. They own six picks in the top 101. They hold 12 picks overall.
And they also hold out hope that the 2018 draft class can develop into a special group.
“Many of our 2018 draft choices had partial seasons or minimal in some cases,” Bill Belichick said at his pre-draft press conference. “We’re excited to see how those guys will do this year, obviously. It’s a hardworking group. Those guys are here on a very consistent basis and hopefully we’ll be able to get a much longer look at the 2018 draft class than we were able to get last year.”
The Patriots drafted nine players a year ago. One was cut in training camp. Two appeared in more than 10 games. Six ended up on injured reserve.
Over the past three years, the Pats have drafted 12 players in Rounds 1-5. Incredibly, nine of those players were on injured reserve at some point. The only three to make it through clean were Sony Michel, Joe Thuney, and Deatrich Wise.
As NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said, the goal for every team is to find three starters from each draft. Despite the injuries to the 2018 group, there’s still good reason to believe that will happen. Michel and cornerback J.C. Jackson, who was undrafted, are locked in as starters. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley was playing 63.3 percent of the defensive snaps before going down with a season-ending biceps injury. And offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn looks to be the starter on the left side going into the 2019 season (although there’s no way of knowing how effective he’ll be).
Point is, even with the issues in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, the Patriots are still in decent shape in terms of amassing young talent.
The Patriots are doing their homework on skill position players, bringing in Ole Miss receiver A.J. Brown, South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel, Iowa tight end Noah Fant, and Arizona State receiver N’Keal Harry for pre-draft visits, according to various reports.
But aside from pass-catcher, which positions are the Pats targeting early in the draft?
Based on the current roster construction and the Patriots’ past tendencies, here are the three most likely (and least likely) positions they’ll aim for with their first-round pick.
Interior defensive line — Five of the Patriots’ 17 first-round picks under Belichick have been interior defensive linemen. After losing Malcom Brown (and possibly Danny Shelton) in free agency, it’s a position of relative need. And this is considered a deep class for defensive linemen.
Edge rusher — There’s an abundance of talented pass-rushers coming out, and the Patriots should be able to land one at No. 32.
Offensive tackle — With Trent Brown and swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle gone, the Pats are down to Marcus Cannon and Isaiah Wynn.
Running back — Even if the Patriots want to draft a complement to Michel and James White, they can find that player in the middle or late rounds.
Cornerback — They’re loaded at the position for 2019.
Interior offensive line — The trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason returns for a fourth consecutive year. They may need to replace Thuney after this season (his last under contract), but don’t need to spend a first-round pick to do so.
So what’ll it be? As the great Dwight Schrute once said, “it’s never the person you most suspect. It’s also never the person you least suspect, since anyone with half a brain would suspect them the most. It’s the person you most medium suspect.”
And for the Patriots, that’s a strong safety.