FOXBORO – How is it possible that the Patriots simultaneously have one of the best passing offenses in the history of the NFL with the game’s greatest quarterback at its controls and are still horrendous at drafting wide receivers?
Maybe because Bill Belichick long ago decided the college passing game was so primitive that it’s not even worth banging his head against the wall trying to find college wideouts.
To put a finer point on it, Belichick would rather be great at drafting corners, defensive linemen and offensive linemen than dealing with the sorcery required to get good at projecting wideouts.
Since 2011, the Patriots have drafted more quarterbacks in the first three rounds than wide receivers. And that’s with Tom Brady in the house.
Since 2009, the Patriots drafted wideouts have been: Braxton Berrios (2018, 6th), Malcolm Mitchell (2016, 4th), Devin Lucien (2016, 7th), Jeremy Gallon (2014, 7th), Aaron Dobson (2013, 2nd), Josh Boyce (2013, 4th), Jeremy Ebert (2012, 7th), Taylor Price (2010, 3rd), Brandon Tate (2009, 3rd), Julian Edelman (2009, 7th).
Belichick has disdain that borders on disgust for the simplicity of the college passing game.
“The issue in college football is there’s just not the same passing game in college football as there is in the NFL,” Belichick said Wednesday at his predraft press conference. “Period. It’s harder to evaluate the receivers, it’s harder to evaluate the quarterbacks, it’s harder to evaluate the offensive linemen, it’s harder to evaluate the pass rushers and it’s harder to evaluate the coverage players.”
All may be hard to project but the Patriots still draft players at those other positions. At wideout? Nope. The team has never spent a first-round pick on a wideout. It’s spent four second-rounders and they only hit 25 percent of the time there (Deion Branch was great; Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson and Dobson were not).
If Belichick wants a wideout, nine times out of 10, he’ll buy one that’s broken in and who comes at a discount. Brandin Cooks. Chris Hogan. Phillip Dorsett. Cordarrelle Patterson. Brandon LaFell. Randy Moss. Chad Ochocinco. Keshawn Martin. Danny Amendola. Wes Welker. Donte Stallworth. Jabar Gaffney. Brandon Lloyd. Reche Caldwell. Doug Gabriel.
“It’s always easier to evaluate NFL players than it is to evaluate college players,” Belichick pointed out. “We get a guy from another team, we’re going to see him play against teams we play, we just haven’t seen him play in our system, but we’ve certainly seen him match up against … comparable players in comparable schemes.
“When you’re talking about college players you’re talking about projecting a guy from whatever his college scheme is into a totally different scheme and that’s imperfect,” Belichick added. “It’s much harder from college to the NFL than from the NFL to the NFL.”
The Patriots enter the 2019 draft with wide receiver seeming to be their No. 1 need. But looking at the consensus top wideout prospects — the D.K. Metcalfs, Marquise Browns, and A.J. Browns — seems a waste of time.
Unless … ? Unless Belichick decides that one thing he hasn’t done at the position is spend a first-rounder and maybe now is the time to do it. It seems to work for other teams. D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley were first-rounders last year. They worked out for the Panthers and Falcons.
Then again, here are some of the other first-rounders taken in the past five drafts: Amari Cooper, Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Breshad Perriman, Nelson Agholor, Phillip Dorsett, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell, Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross.
Only Cooper has been a Pro Bowler.
Of course, the Patriots can see those lackluster picks and raise them with the Derek Rivers, Antonio Garcia, Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards, Tavon Wilson, Ras-I Dowling collection. The science is imperfect at all positions.
Still, it’s most likely the Patriots try to extract a wideout from another team via trade. Agholor, for instance. The Patriots would sooner draft a long-snapper in the first round than a wideout.
A long time ago, Belichick gave me insight into how he felt about spending first-rounders on wideouts. It was late in the 2001 season and Richard Seymour had made a major impact already as a rookie. Belichick was walking through the locker room at Foxboro Stadium and I buttonholed him to ask, “Why a defensive tackle back in April rather than a wideout when it seemed so obvious Drew Bledsoe was being held hostage by a lack of weapons?”
“Who’s the best rookie wide receiver right now?” Belichick asked me.
“Chris Chambers,” he said. “You can get wide receivers anywhere in the draft. You can’t get players like Richard anywhere in the draft.”
To Belichick’s point, the first five wideouts in that draft were David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Rod Gardner, Santana Moss and Freddie Mitchell.
The next five taken from picks 30 through 52? Reggie Wayne, Quincy Morgan, Chad Ochocinco, Robert Ferguson and Chambers. Steve Smith was the next one taken. He went 74th. And he’ll also be going to the Hall of Fame.
In short, despite the glaring need, the Patriots don’t seem close to altering their wide receiver strategy in this draft. Or any other that Belichick is part of.
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