2007 Patriots versus 2017 Patriots: The receivers
The similarities are obvious.
Both teams loaded up in the offseason, willingly parting ways with draft picks to bring aboard more experienced talent. Both teams went into their respective seasons with an embarrassment of riches offensively. Both teams assembled defenses that combined savvy veteran leadership and younger athletes in their physical primes.
Despite having nothing but a few spring workouts under its belt, the current iteration of the Patriots roster has already drawn comparisons to its 2007 counterpart -- the one that went 18-0 before losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Sports books have Bill Belichick's club favored to win each of its 16 regular-season games. Tom Brady is considered the early front-runner for MVP, an award he first won a decade ago. Here at CSN, we've wondered if the NFL has a "Patriots problem" because of what looks like a widening gap between them and their competition.
Perhaps in light of some of the hype they've received, Patriots coaches seemed to do what they could during OTAs last month to keep players humble. They called it a "teaching camp," as they always do, but substitution infractions meant laps. Matt Patricia blew a gasket or two. And during one press conference, Belichick took a moment to remind anyone listening exactly how much this year's group had accomplished.
"We’ve had enough parades, enough celebrations and enough everything," he said. "This ’17 team hasn’t done anything yet. None of us have."
Yet here we are, with the entire league off for the summer and little in the way of events to cover, so why not compare one team that hasn't done anything to another that's considered one of the best of all time? The similarities are there. We've got the time. And it might spark some debate to keep us occupied until camp begins.
-- We'll pit Patriots players from 2017 and 2007 against one another and answer the question, "Who is the better player?" We're not judging them based on what they were capable of in their primes. We're not stacking one player's career against another's. It's just Player X in 2017 versus Player Y in 2007.
-- Players will be matched up as logically as possible based on position, but roles won't sync up perfectly . . . particularly in the front-seven. We've chosen to include the players who saw the most playing time in 2007, per Pro Football Focus, and lined them up against players on this year's roster that we believe are in line to see the most work. We realize that by the end of the 2017 season some of the names included here could look ridiculous. So be it.
-- Several Patriots beat reporters from 2007, including our own Tom E. Curran (then with nbcsports.com) and Mike Giardi (then with NECN), have been polled for their opinions, but I'll make the final call for each. Let me know if you disagree. I know you will. But obviously feel free to clog Tom and Mike's notifications as well. They'll be happy to hear from you.
Keep an eye on our @CSNNE Twitter account for polls corresponding with these matchups so that you can make your voice heard that way as well.
Patriots '07 vs '17: Breaking down the Wide Receiver/Tight End groups
WES WELKER VS. JULIAN EDELMAN
WES WELKER: 26 years old in 2007, 5-foot-9, 185 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 172 targets, 139 receptions, 1,388 yards, 10 touchdowns, 10.0 yards per reception, 5.5 yards after catch per reception, 21 missed tackles forced, 7 drops.
JULIAN EDELMAN: 31 years old in 2017, 5-foot-10, 200 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 181 targets, 119 receptions, 1,448 yards, 4 touchdowns, 12.2 yards per reception, 5.0 yards after catch per reception, 17 missed tackles forced, 14 drops.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Talk about firing out of the gates. Edelman versus Welker may be the most hotly-debated matchup of the 30 we handle this summer. The two represent quite possibly Tom Brady's two most trusted receivers over the course of his career. They also happen to be two of Brady's best friends. In terms of toughness, it'd be hard to draw a definitive conclusion on who should get the advantage. In terms of dependability, Welker may get the edge when looking at the above drop statistic, but Edelman's playoff production, and his conversions in big moments, earn him a significant bump. In 2016, Edelman converted 55 first downs. In 2007, Welker moved the chains 65 times. Edelman poses a different type of threat now than Welker did in 2007 in that Edelman is not strictly a slot receiver. He's faster than Welker, in my opinion. He's able to run a wider variety of routes. (And he has a better arm, for what that's worth.) At 26, Welker was quicker than Edelman is now. He was close to an impossible cover underneath. Edelman has been the better punt-returner over the course of his career -- he's statistically one of the best of all time -- but he has had some of those duties dialed back (15 returns in 2016, 9.4-yard average) whereas Welker was called upon to return more often (25 returns in 2007, 10.0-yard average) and was very good in that role. This is close to a dead heat (our panel of 2007 beat reporters split the decision) and though Welker has Father Time on his side here, this isn't a who-would-you-rather-have-for-the-remainder-of-his-career discussion. It's more of a one-year snap-shot. That being the case, give me the more dynamic option of the two.
THE CHOICE: Edelman
RANDY MOSS VS. BRANDIN COOKS
RANDY MOSS: 30 years old in 2007, 6-foot-4, 210 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 157 targets, 98 receptions, 1,493 yards, 23 touchdowns, 15.1 yards per reception, 3.0 yards after catch per reception, 2 missed tackles forced, 11 drops.
BRANDIN COOKS: 24 years old in 2017, 5-foot-10, 189 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (with New Orleans): 113 targets, 78 receptions, 1,173 yards, 8 touchdowns, 15.0 yards per reception, 4.7 yards after catch per reception, 3 missed tackles forced, 4 drops.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Moss was, quite simply, the best receiver on the planet in 2007. Only a handful of receivers in the history of the league had a single season as good as the one Moss put together after arriving to New England in a trade that sent a fourth-round pick to the Raiders. (His single-season record of 23 touchdown receptions still stands.) He showed up Week 1 without having played a single preseason snap -- he was Gronk before Gronk in that regard -- and promptly caught all nine passes Tom Brady sent his way for 183 yards and a touchdown against the Jets. Defenses quickly realized that Moss was no longer the player who spent two years floating in Oakland; he was to be feared again. Yet they still had trouble keeping up with him. Cooks will be the most dynamic receiver Brady's had to work with since Moss. He may be more versatile than Moss was in terms of the number of places where he can be aligned. And the early returns on Cooks' fit in Foxboro have been good, according to his coaches. The unknown with Cooks -- what will he look like when paired with the game's best quarterback? -- makes me hesitate for a nanosecond. But even if all goes swimmingly in his first season with the Patriots, odds are Cooks won't approach what Moss was in 2007. Very few ever have.
THE CHOICE: Moss
DONTE' STALLWORTH VS. CHRIS HOGAN
DONTE STALLWORTH: 26 years old in 2007, 6-feet, 200 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 81 targets, 54 receptions, 810 yards, 3 touchdowns, 15.0 yards per reception, 7.3 yards after catch per reception, 12 missed tackles forced, 5 drops.
CHRIS HOGAN: 28 years old in 2017, 6-foot-1, 210 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 77 targets, 55 receptions, 1,012 yards, 6 touchdowns, 18.4 yards per reception, 5.4 yards after catch per reception, 5 missed tackles forced, 3 drops.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Hogan's production down the field in 2016 helped Tom Brady have one of his best seasons throwing the deep ball since 2007. In his first year in New England, the former Bills wideout proved he could be a dependable big-play threat, particularly in critical moments (17 catches, 332 yards, 2 scores in the 2016 postseason), which gives him a bump in this matchup with Stallworth. The numbers Hogan posted on passes thrown 20 yards or more down the field -- 16 catches for 559 yards and 5 touchdowns -- forced defenses to stay honest, and when they weren't he made them pay as the team's top deep option with Rob Gronkowski out injured. Stallworth was a more elusive runner after the catch and was capable of turning a short throw into a long score, but he was not quite as productive as Hogan down the field, and his postseason play (8 catches, 113 yards) didn't measure up to his counterpart's. This was a tough call, especially when the bottom-line stats are as similar as they are. But take the numbers out of it and Hogan is still a little bigger, his hands are a little more sure, and he has the ability to contribute in the kicking game in ways Stallworth did not. The advantage Stallworth has in terms of straight-line speed isn't enough to tip the scales in his favor. Hogan's production may drop in 2017 now that Brandin Cooks has been added to the mix, but he's still the better of the two No. 3 receivers here, in my opinion.
THE CHOICE: Hogan
JABAR GAFFNEY VS. MALCOLM MITCHELL
JABAR GAFFNEY: 26 years old in 2007, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 52 targets, 40 receptions, 487 yards, 6 touchdowns, 12.2 yards per reception, 3.5 yards after catch per reception, 5 missed tackles forced, 2 drops.
MALCOLM MITCHELL: 24 years old in 2017, 6-foot-1, 200 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 57 targets, 39 receptions, 476 yards, 4 touchdowns, 12.2 yards per reception, 4.6 yards after catch per reception, 6 missed tackles forced, 5 drops.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Malcolm Mitchell came into the 2016 season as a fourth-round pick with a warm-and-fuzzy backstory, one of the pieces that the Patriots acquired in the Chandler Jones trade with Arizona. He left with six catches for 70 yards in Super Bowl LI and a plate of wings to go. Despite dealing with injuries -- he dislocated his elbow during the preseason and had a knee issue that limited him late in the season -- he put together one of the most productive rookie seasons for a receiver under Bill Belichick in New England and drew comparisons to Deion Branch for his football IQ. Though his numbers weren't eye-popping, they came in just a shade under where Branch was as a rookie (43 receptions, 489 yards), and his yards per route run made him look like a steal. According to Pro Football Focus, his average was better than several receivers taken ahead of him in last year's draft, including first-rounders Will Fuller, Corey Coleman and Laquon Treadwell and second-rounders Sterling Shepard and Tyler Boyd. Gaffney has the edge on Mitchell when it comes to his length and his experience. And Mitchell has already endured a rash of injuries in his young career that may make Gaffney the more palatable choice for some. Gaffney also had a memorable signature moment in 2007, snagging the game-winning touchdown in Baltimore to help keep the Patriots undefeated in Week 13. But that catch now pales in comparison to what Mitchell did in the Super Bowl. With Mitchell headed into his second season -- after his first full offseason in the Patriots program -- he should be ready to make a leap that makes this decision a relatively easy one. Just one 2007 beat guy polled chose Gaffney.
THE CHOICE: Mitchell
BENJAMIN WATSON VS. ROB GRONKOWSKI
BENJAMIN WATSON: 26 years old in 2007, 6-foot-3, 255 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 54 targets, 39 receptions, 409 yards, 8 touchdowns, 10.5 yards per reception, 2.9 yards after catch per reception, 3 missed tackles forced, 6 drops.
ROB GRONKOWSKI: 28 years old in 2017, 6-foot-6, 265 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (injured during postseason): 36 targets, 25 receptions, 540 yards, 3 touchdowns, 21.6 yards per reception, 8.7 yards after catch per reception, 7 missed tackles forced, 1 drop.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Before we send you on your way with the obvious choice, let's at least try to paint a picture of what the Patriots had at tight end in 2007. A physical specimen who ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at his pro day three years prior, Watson was still in his athletic prime. He could be out on the field in any situation, though he finished the season having played about 50 percent of his team's offensive snaps. The lone argument against Gronkowski when comparing him against any tight end -- that his health is a constant question mark -- still isn't a bold check-mark in Watson's favor. Watson missed four regular-season games in 2007. Though we're in wait-and-see mode on Gronkowski before pads come on at training camp this summer, even at 28 and after another back surgery, he still looks like the better athlete with more dependable hands and a superior catch radius. Even after everything Gronkowski's body has been through, this isn't much of a discussion. And that says everything you need to know about the unique physical abilities of arguably the greatest tight end to ever lace 'em up.
THE CHOICE: Gronkowski