Patriots

Names to know: Slot receiver options for Patriots if they wait for 2019 NFL draft

Names to know: Slot receiver options for Patriots if they wait for 2019 NFL draft

There's still time for the Patriots to sign a free-agent wideout. There's still time for them to acquire a pass-catcher via trade.

But what if they decide the best way to continue to build depth at the position around Julian Edelman is to dip into the draft?

The Patriots have of course had their share of cracks at rookie receivers, using 16 picks to take wideouts with Bill Belichick at the helm. Most recently, they've used draft choices on Braxton Berrios (sixth round, 2018), Malcolm Mitchell (fourth round, 2016), Devin Lucien (seventh round, 2016), Jeremy Gallon (seventh round, 2014), Aaron Dobson (second round, 2013) and Josh Boyce (fourth round, 2013). 

Dobson, Chad Jackson (2006), Bethel Johnson (2003) and Deion Branch (2002) are the second-round choices Belichick has been willing to spend at the position. The Patriots haven't taken a receiver in the first round since Terry Glenn in 1996. 

Is the situation at that spot such that Belichick would be willing to use the No. 32 pick in this year's draft on a receiver? If he wants to wait until the second round -- where the Patriots have picks No. 56 and No. 64 -- who may be there waiting for the call? 

WHAT ABOUT FREE AGENCY?

Here are a few of the names worth keeping an eye on come next month, as the Patriots have expressed interest in free-agent wideouts since the new league began but have not been able to land a dependable starting-caliber player in that time. With this list, we'll focus in on players who could potentially contribute inside since it appears that's something for which the Patriots -- given their interest in Adam Humphries and Golden Tate -- are looking.

DAY 1 OPTIONS

AJ Brown, Ole Miss 
Brown, according to some experts, could be in the mix as the top receiver taken in this year's class. But if it's his teammate DK Metcalf who goes first, and if true "X" options like N'Keal Harry go early, Brown could end up sliding. At 6-feet, 226 pounds, he'd certainly qualify as a big slot, but he can uncover with his size as well as his route-running. He's not afraid to mix it up as a blocker, which the Patriots would appreciate, and he's aggressive enough to run through contact with the ball in his hands. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to JuJu Smith-Schuster. 

Parris Campbell, Ohio State 
Campbell isn't thought of as a first-round receiver by most, but his athletic traits could attract someone near the end of Day 1. He lit up the combine at 6-feet, 205 pounds, running a 4.31-second 40 (96th percentile among receivers, according to MockDraftable.com), jumping 135 inches in the broad jump (98th percentile) and clocking a 4.03-second 20-yard shuttle (90th percentile). He may project more as a "Z" than a true slot since he's shown an ability to burn off the corner as a jet-sweep specialist. He's also a threat in the screen game, where he can use his speed to slice through defenses. He may not be the draft's most polished route-runner, but he has physical gifts that can't be taught. On special teams, he could fill a role for the Patriots both as their kick and punt returner. 

Deebo Samuel, South Carolina 
Samuel is another inside receiver who's built to withstand the punishment pass-catchers absorb over the middle of the field (5-11, 214 pounds) but has the athleticism (4.48-second 40) to break games open. He's an explosive returner (four kicks brought back for touchdowns) and has produced against some of the best competition college football has to offer. He put up 10 catches for 210 yards and three scores against Clemson last season. 

DAY 2 OPTIONS

Mecole Hardman, Georgia 
The Patriots love to draft Bulldogs, and there are a couple of receivers from Georgia in this year's class who may catch their eye. Riley Ridley is more of an outside threat who'll use his body to shield defenders and pluck passes out of the air with dependable hands. Hardman, meanwhile, is an undersized burner. The 5-10, 187-pounder ran a 4.33-second 40 at the combine and has drawn comparisons to Seattle's Tyler Lockett (51 percent of snaps in the slot for the Seahawks in 2018). Hardman has only spent two seasons as a receiver so he won't be a short-to-intermediate route-running whiz. But maybe with some coaching, and if he gets a good reference from coach Kirby Smart, he'll provide the Patriots with an explosive presence from the slot. He might be available to the Patriots in the third round if they wait to pounce at the position.

Andy Isabella, UMass 
We dove deep into Isabella's skill set here, but he's worth mentioning again as a potential option. The fact that he was a down-the-field player at UMass (4.31-second 40) who's projected as a slot -- he's admitted he's working on interior routes leading up to the draft -- means he could have some versatility within offensive formations. That's something the Patriots typically like to see. Isabella could be dangerous as an end-around option, and he has solid short-area quickness (4.15-second 20-yard shuttle) to redirect in the middle of the field for Tom Brady.

WHAT ABOUT A TRADE?

Terry McClaurin, Ohio State
The Patriots haven't plucked players from the Urban Meyer tree in some time, but McClaurin would make sense as the next. He profiles as one of the best all-around athletes in the class at the position (4.35-second 40, 37.5-inch vertical), and his top MockDraftable.com comparisons include Chad Jackson, Bethel Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson. McLaurin got some experience working in the slot at Ohio State and showed reliable hands. He's also a potential core special-teamer who has the size, speed and competitiveness to excel on fourth down.

DAY 3 OPTIONS

Greg Dortch, Wake Forest
At 5-foot-7, 173 pounds, Dortch isn't going to give the Patriots some of the inside-out versatility that they like. He worked out of the slot almost exclusively at Wake Forest. And his frame won't make him an imposing player in the run game as a blocker. But he's tough. He suffered a punctured small intestine while scoring against Louisville, stayed in the game, scored twice more, and then later that day had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. He returned two punts for scores last year and averaged 11.0 yards per return with one muff.

Hunter Renfrow, Clemson
Renfrow has been projected as a Patriots fit since he was working the short-to-intermediate area for Clemson in the College Football Playoffs years ago. Surprise, surprise: He tested as a quick change-of-direction target at the combine (6.8-second three-cone, 4.19-second 20-yard shuttle) who could be the next Danny Amendola as a slightly-built slot. If the Patriots want to wait until Day 3 to nab a slot option with experience performing under pressure, Renfrow could be their guy.

Cody Thompson, Toledo 
We had Thompson going off to the Patriots in a seven-round mock draft earlier this offseason. Here's what we said at the time: "Quarterback-turned-receiver. MAC product. Possesses special teams value. Seventh-round pick. Sound familiar? Thompson isn't going to be the next Julian Edelman, but he does have some intriguing qualities to work with. Because he doesn't have breakaway speed (4.57 40), he might be a slot receiver even though his frame (6-1, 205) makes him look like an "X." Furthering his case for the slot would be his agility numbers -- 6.87 three-cone, 4.03 short shuttle -- and his willingness to block. Thompson has experience as a returner and has blocked three punts in his college career, meaning there might be a spot for him on the roster even if he doesn't contribute offensively."

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Lombardi doesn't see a 'Day 1 starter' at QB in this draft

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Lombardi doesn't see a 'Day 1 starter' at QB in this draft

If anyone could provide insight into what Bill Belichick and the Patriots might be thinking on the eve of the NFL draft, it's Michael Lombardi. The former Pats staffer and Belichick confidant once dubbed "one of the smartest people I know" by the coach.

Lombardi joined Phil Perry this week on "The Next Pats Podcast" to look ahead to a draft he doesn't seem enamored with - particularly at quarterback for those thinking the heir to Tom Brady might be selected this weekend.

Lombardi was on Belichick's staff the last time that attempt was made - when Jimmy Garoppolo was drafted in 2014.

"Tom has defeated Father Time," Lombardi told Perry. "When we drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014, did anybody think Tom would last another five years?  Anybody who said yes, other than Tom, probably wasn't telling the truth. Tom's just remarkable..."

As for this draft class of QBs, Lombardi said: "I'm not sure there's a quarterback in this draft, [rumored No. 1 pick Kyler] Murray included, who doesn't have some kind of fault in them...I have a hard time looking at this draft and saying [of the QBs] this guy's a Day 1 starter or a Pro Bowl player. "

Lombardi echoed Belichick's comments at the coach's pre-draft meeting with the media about the difficulty involved in evaluating college passers because of the level of competition they're coming from.

"Nobody ever talks about the level of competition and that's really the challenge of evaluating college players," Lombardi said. "When you watch pro players it's easy because they're going against other pro players."

And what might the Pats be looking for tomorrow night with pick No. 32? Lombardi sees them leaning toward defense.

"I think the thing about the Patriots is they realize that they've got to get a good player at 32," he told Perry. "If it's a corner that they like, that can come in and play a role for them this year, I think they could pick the corner. If there happened to be a linebacker or a defensive end that could rush, they can do that. It's going to be what the player's skill set is, what he could do this year and what impact he could utilize within there. You know there's always the chance he [Belichick] could trade down for more second-round picks."

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Julian Edelman recruits Zion Williamson to be new Patriots tight end

Julian Edelman recruits Zion Williamson to be new Patriots tight end

Zion Williamson in all likelihood will be the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, but Julian Edelman still made his best pitch for the Duke standout to join the Patriots instead.

Edelman tweeted out a photoshopped image of Williamson holding up a Patriots jersey with Robert and Jonathan Kraft, and he let the 6-foot-10 18-year-old know about the Pats' open tight end position.

Edelman isn't the only Patriot recruiting athletes from other sports to take Rob Gronkowski's place at tight end. Tom Brady did the same Tuesday night with Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.

As for how the Patriots are realistically filling Gronk's void, they signed both Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Matt LaCosse in free agency. They also could look to add more depth at the position via the NFL Draft, which begins on Thursday.

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