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Perry: How can the Pats build an elite basketball team at receiver like Philly?

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PHOENIX -- It didn't take long for Nick Sirianni to be convinced. A handful of plays on tape, probably, as he remembers it. A.J. Brown was going to be worth what the Eagles were about to give up to go get him.

Soon thereafter, general manager Howie Roseman sent the No. 18 and No. 101 overall picks in the 2022 NFL Draft to the Tennessee Titans in order to acquire Brown. With a game-changing receiver on board, the Eagles -- owners of one of the most efficient passing attacks in football this season -- are now on the precipice of their second Super Bowl title in six seasons.

"AJ is a special playmaker," Sirianni told NBC Sports Boston this week. "I remember when Howie first talked to me about the opportunity to be able to do that. Being in the AFC South as the offensive coordinator with the Colts, I had seen him run up and down Lucas Oil Field giving us problems, and also Nissan Field giving us problems.

"When I look at wide receivers, the thing that I always want to know is do they have quickness? And do they have play strength? I already knew the answer there (from) seeing him play live -- and just being a fan of wide receivers in general and studying them all the time since I played wide receiver -- but when Howie and I put the tape on, it didn't take too many plays to confirm what I already knew."

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Brown was just the latest in a series of aggressive moves at the receiver position that have helped the Eagles get back to the Super Bowl. And they serve as a blueprint of sorts for a team like the Patriots that is looking to get back to where Philly currently sits.

The path for New England to get back to making noise in the postseason -- after missing the playoffs entirely in two of the last three seasons -- is to get aggressive. Specifically on offense. Specifically at receiver. That's what the Eagles' moves would suggest, at least.

Roseman started building up in 2020 to improve upon a group that featured Nelson Agholor and second-round rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside the previous season. They dove in after Jalen Reagor in the first round. Didn't work. The Eagles ranked 28th in EPA per dropback. Carson Wentz fell apart. The Eagles went 4-11-1. 

But they kept swinging. 

In 2021, they spent another first-rounder on a wideout when they drafted DeVonta Smith. Improvement. With new quarterback Jalen Hurts behind center, Smith led the team in receiving, and Philly ranked 15th in EPA per dropback. But they were about a .500 team at 9-8.

So they kept swinging. 

A.J. Brown was just the latest in a series of aggressive moves at the receiver position that have helped the Eagles get back to the Super Bowl. And they serve as a blueprint of sorts for a team like the Patriots that is looking to get back to where Philly currently sits.

Phil Perry on how the Pats can emulate the Eagles

Before last season began, they offloaded -- according to the Fitzgerald-Spielberger draft trade value chart -- the equivalent of about the No. 5 overall pick to Tennessee for Brown. Improvement. Again. Brown led the team in receiving for the 14-3 Eagles, and they ranked seventh in dropback EPA. 

Not bad for a team that two years prior had what was considered one of the worst passing games in all of football and a second-round quarterback who drew comparisons to Tim Tebow.

The Brown move was the most costly of all. But for a team that was sound elsewhere -- on defense, along the offensive line -- it appears to have been the one that has put the Eagles over the top from a middle-of-the-road team to a title contender.

"I just think that when you have a chance to get a player like that, those are unique opportunities," Roseman told NBC Sports Boston this week. "You're probably never going to feel great about the value of the deal, you know? But at that time you just want to get the player and you just try to do the best job you can."

"When you can get a playmaker like that," Sirianni added, "we had two first-round picks that we were able to get, use one of them for a guy that you weren't taking a chance on, right? There's always risk in the draft. You look at any draft, not every guy hits. We knew he hit because he had already hit. 

 

"Man, he's as advertised. To be able to coach him every day? The secret to good coaching: Get good players. A.J.'s a phenomenal player. He's a phenomenal person. He works really hard to be the player he is, and I'm thrilled he's on this team and one of the big reasons why we're in this game this weekend."

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Is the Eagles' path to contention one that can be replicated, though? Specifically for the Patriots? 

It won't be easy

If they were hoping to add a game-changing talent via free agency, that kind of player won't be out there for them. Arguably the best wideout available is one of their own: Jakobi Meyers. Kansas City's JuJu Smith-Schuster is in that same range, but (like Meyers) is more of a possession receiver than an alter-the-geometry-of-the-defense type.

Then there's the draft, which has in recent years been overflowing with receiver talent. Brown and his former college teammate DK Metcalf were second-round picks and now rank among the most highly-paid receivers in the league. Same goes for San Francisco's Deebo Samuel. Cooper Kupp was a third-round pick, as was Terry McLaurin. All rank among the best young wideouts in football. But this year's draft class may not necessarily have that same kind of receiver depth, according to experts.

Patriots upgrade at WR in Pro Football Focus' new 2023 NFL Mock Draft

Then there's the trade market. Bill Belichick has shown a willingness to be aggressive there before in acquiring wideouts. He sent a first-round pick to the Rams in 2017 for Brandin Cooks. Good move. He traded a second-rounder for Mohamad Sanu. Not so much.

But could a young player nearing the end of his rookie contract potentially become available for Belichick to make the kind of seismic move the Eagles made a year ago? 

Will the Bengals want to pay Tee Higgins, for instance, knowing they have to get deals done with Joe Burrow and (eventually) Ja'Marr Chase? Or could he be made available? Could the Broncos look to recoup some of the pick value they've lost in deals for Sean Payton and Russell Wilson by sending Jerry Jeudy away in a trade? Will a rebuilding Cardinals franchise, under former Patriots executive Monti Ossenfort, look to offload DeAndre Hopkins in a deal to save money and build draft capital?

With DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton and Kendrick Bourne under contract for 2023, the Patriots do have a variety of skill sets represented in their receiver room. There's the 50-50 contested-catch player. There's the speed option. There's a versatile chess piece. While all three appear capable, is that enough in today's game -- especially in the offensive-talent-laden AFC -- to realize postseason success? 

 

The Eagles paid a premium to build a room that was not only diverse in terms of its skills but elite when it came to those skills.

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"I think we're trying to build a basketball team," Roseman said. "We're trying to find complementary skill sets. I think bringing in AJ with DeVonta with Quez (Watkins) and Zach Paschal, I think that really fit what we were looking for. We didn't have a guy like [Brown]. He's a unique guy. He's got unique physical traits. Just his connection with Jalen. What a great opportunity for this team and for us. Obviously we paid a big price for him. But it was worth it for where we were as a team and what we needed."

Roseman wouldn't go so far as to say receiver has become the second-most important position in the sport because of what it can do for the quarterback spot and the trickle-down effect it can have on the entirety of an offense. But he's made it clear, particularly after handing Brown a four-year extension worth $100 million, that position is worthy of a hefty investment.

"I don't know that I want to get into what's more important," he said. "I think the most important thing is having as many great players as you possibly can at core positions, and certainly receiver is one of them."

As the Super Bowl plays out this weekend, it'll be difficult for the Patriots not to feel the same way. The Chiefs don't have great receivers, but they have the greatest quarterback on the planet. The Eagles went from good to great at one position and improved from being a .500 team to a win away from a Lombardi Trophy.

As Belichick pursues a similarly-drastic rise for his club, it's worth wondering what he can conjure up this offseason in order to upgrade one of the most important positions on his roster.