A Super Bowl MVP, and the franchise’s one-time leader in postseason touchdown receptions.
Those were the first two wide receivers ever drafted by Bill Belichick in New England: Deion Branch (second round, 65th overall) and David Givens (seventh round, 253rd), respectively, who were part of the Patriots' 2002 NFL Draft class coming off of Super Bowl XXXVI.
It was simply a home run of a haul that equipped the emerging Tom Brady with a pair of young receivers he’d develop trust in during the biggest of moments from 2002 to 2005.
Over the next 19 seasons, the Patriots have selected 15 more wide receivers at various stages of the draft. With the exception of two who came years later – one of whom isn’t really a wide receiver at all and one of whom played quarterback in college – Belichick and Co. have never found another receiver to have the impact of either Branch or Givens in New England.
How could one team that’s been so good in nearly every other aspect of its operation come up blank time and time again when drafting wide receivers?
With Branch and Givens in the fold, along with steady veterans in Troy Brown and David Patten, the position really shouldn’t have been that high on the list for the Patriots in 2003, but their troubling trend began when they reached for Bethel Johnson in the second round at No. 45 overall.
Johnson – and many subsequent picks at wide receiver – profiled as prototypical Raiders thanks to their blazing speed…and not much else. Johnson's 4.37-second 40-yard dash time was third-fastest at the 2003 NFL Scouting Combine.
Johnson parlayed that speed into two kick returns for touchdowns over his first two seasons with the Patriots and little else before he was swapped out to the Saints in 2006.
Still, one miss isn’t the end of the world, even if the next receiver off the board in 2003 was three-time Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin. Missing on P.K. Sam (fifth round, 164th overall) in 2004 was of little consequence as well.
New England's selection of Chad Jackson (second round, 36th overall) in 2006, on the other hand, is when it became clear something was amiss. Michael Holley’s "War Room" details how scouts warned Belichick that Jackson “had a bad attitude, was a bad route runner, had excellent straight-line speed and was a ‘me’ guy.” Troy Brown noted in the book that once Jackson arrived at Gillette Stadium, “guys would try to pull him into meetings, and he’d be at his locker lying down.”
Like Johnson, Jackson’s 40 time was off the charts – 4.35 seconds, second-best at the 2006 combine. After catching a touchdown pass in three of his first five appearances, however, Jackson solidified himself as New England’s biggest draft bust at any position to date in the Belichick era. He appeared in two games in 2007 and was released prior to the start of the 2008 season.
Making matters even worse, the Patriots actually traded up for Jackson. One of the picks New England gave up for Jackson turned into receiver Greg Jennings, a two-time Pro Bowler who had five straight 900-yard seasons for the Packers. Brandon Marshall and Marques Colston are among other receivers who went later in the draft, well after Jackson.
New England’s 2008 and 2009 drafts actually yielded three wide receivers who’d play at least a decade in the NFL -- but only one of them as an actual receiver, and even that took some time to sort out.
In 2008, the Patriots drafted Matthew Slater in the fifth round at 153rd overall and though he was listed as a receiver, there was never any doubt where he’d make his mark in the NFL: in coverage on special teams as a gunner, where he’s built himself a long-shot Hall of Fame case.
“I know that’s something I have experience in and something that I love to do and I’m not sure if everybody feels that same way when it comes to special teams,” Slater said at the time. “I know that that’s something I’m looking forward to contributing at and luckily I have been around there and I’m looking forward to continuing it in New England.”
Slater’s nine Pro Bowl appearances are tied for second in team history with John Hannah – though they have nothing to do with his one career catch for 46 yards in 2011. Along with Matt Ryan, the third overall pick in 2008, Slater is the only player from his draft class still active for the team that drafted him.
The Patriots set their sights higher on finding an actual receiver in 2009, and again came away with a player who’ll garner Hall of Fame discussion in Julian Edelman, drafted 232nd overall in the seventh round. The late-round flier on Edelman obviously worked out wondrously, but more so as a lottery ticket than as a well-vetted selection.
New England also drafted Brandon Tate 83rd overall in the third round in 2009, and to Tate’s credit, he went on to play 10 years in the league – eight after the Patriots waived him prior to the start of the 2011 season. The trouble with Tate in Foxboro was twofold: he had a knee injury which cost him half of his senior season at North Carolina and stretched into his rookie year in the NFL, and his best attributes were as a kick returner than a receiver.
He was prolific at UNC -- seventh all-time in the NCAA in kick return yards upon graduating -- but how exactly was that supposed to project to a skill set as an all-around receiver in the NFL? Tate was the 10th receiver off the board, and had a longer career than eight drafted in front of him, but the Steelers snatched future Pro Bowler Mike Wallace with the very next pick in the draft. Wallace finished his career with 538 catches to Tate’s 71.
The Patriots went after another speedster in the third round in 2010 in Taylor Price with the 90th pick. Price, who was one of the 10 fastest players at that year’s combine, played at Ohio, a smaller program in the Mid-American Conference like Edelman (Kent State).
It may have taken Edelman four years to break out with the Patriots, but it took the team just four regular season games to decide they’d seen enough of Price, releasing him in December 2011. He latched on with the Jaguars for two games later in the season but never appeared in another NFL game thereafter.
Price was the 13th receiver off the board in 2010, so no harm, no foul, but the 23rd receiver drafted also played in the MAC and even later wound up (briefly) in New England: Antonio Brown.
The Patriots didn’t draft a receiver in 2011 and 2012 produced just Jeremy Ebert, a seventh-round pick who never appeared in New England before 2013 wound up being perhaps the most frustrating draft to date at the position.
Aaron Dobson (second round, 59th overall) and Josh Boyce (fourth round, 102nd overall) arrived at a time when the Patriots were transitioning from Wes Welker to Danny Amendola and ultimately Edelman, leaving the team in desperate need for help along the outside.
Dobson, who never dropped a pass his senior year at Marshall, peaked on the first target of his career, hauling in a 39-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady. It was basically all downhill from there, as Dobson finished his rookie season with nine drops and barely caught 50% of his targets (37 for 72).
Boyce, yet another speed demon at the combine (4.38, eight-best in 2013) was a total nonfactor, finishing with nine catches in 10 games over parts of two seasons. The undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins outshined both Dobson and Boyce in 2013, if only with his game-winning touchdown catch against the Saints, but none of them played a role of significance in the following season’s Super Bowl run. Same goes for Jeremy Gallon (seventh round, 244th overall) in 2014, who never appeared in an NFL game.
Give the Patriots at least partial credit for Malcolm Mitchell (fourth round, 112th overall) in 2016, as they don’t erase a 28-3 deficit and win Super Bowl LI without his six catches for 70 yards in the game – including five grabs in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, they’d be the last catches of Mitchell’s NFL career due to a degenerative knee issue that forced his retirement in early 2019.
Devin Lucien (seventh round, 244th) in 2016 never appeared in a regular season game in the NFL. Braxton Berrios (sixth round, 210th) in 2018 never caught on in Foxboro but has since found a home, albeit with the moribund Jets, where he caught 37 passes for 394 yards in 2020.
Was Braxton Berrios one that got away? Probably not, but the fact that his production to date is right in line with that of N’Keal Harry (first round, 32nd overall) in 2019 speaks volumes to just how much of an issue it remains in New England when it comes to drafting wide receivers.
With Harry, his breakaway speed wasn’t what shot him to the top of the draft board for the Patriots, as had been the case in the past with Johnson, Jackson or Tate. His 40 time at the 2019 combine was pretty average: 4.53 seconds, far below those of Mecole Hardman, D.K. Metcalf or Terry McLaurin, all of whom were timed between 4.35 and 4.36.
Yet Metcalf and McLaurin rank in the top three from their draft in both receptions and receiving yards and all three have caught at least 10 touchdowns. You can say that Metcalf is playing with Russell Wilson while Harry spent this past season playing with Cam Newton, but McLaurin’s quarterbacks have been Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen and a washed-up Alex Smith through two years in D.C.
A.J. Brown, Diontae Johnson, Deebo Samuel and Darius Slayton are among the other receivers drafted long after Harry who’ve gotten off to better starts in their pro careers.
New England’s drafting issues have spread to other positions in recent seasons, prompting Robert Kraft to say last month, “I really hope and believe I’ve seen a different approach this year” when it comes to the draft.
Wide receiver remains among the biggest needs on the roster for the Patriots – perhaps not so large they’ll use the 15th overall pick on it, but enough that a second or third-round choice you’d expect to make an impact could be in the works.
“We’re always looking to get better, always try to evaluate everything we do and find a better way to do it,” Belichick said. “That’s not necessarily an annual process with the draft, but something we do on a regular basis throughout the course of the season, whether it’s whatever period of time it is.
“Always looking to do a better job.”
With Brady’s alleged mistrust of young receivers no longer a factor, the Patriots are out of excuses when it comes to evaluating the position in the draft. Things have already gotten off to a rocky start at tight end post-Brady in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, but the team didn’t draft any wide receivers in 2020.
With New England almost certain to draft a receiver at some point next week, there’s no time like the present to kick a two-decades-old run of futility.
Which is all relative, given the six Super Bowl titles and all. But adding another championship won’t come quite as easy if the team can’t solve its drafting woes at receiver.