Pierre Garcon

Full Nelson? A look at wide receiver options remaining for Patriots after first wave of free agency

Full Nelson? A look at wide receiver options remaining for Patriots after first wave of free agency

The Patriots haven't landed a go-to receiver in free agency yet. They added Bruce Ellington and Maurice Harris last week. They re-signed Phillip Dorsett. Maybe they're done. Maybe not. Maybe they'd rather execute a trade or dip into the draft at this position. 

There are still opportunities for the team to pick up a free-agent pass-catcher you've heard of before, though.

None of the receivers remaining may be at the same level talent-wise as Golden Tate, Adam Humphries, Jamison Crowder or Cole Beasley. But there are a few who may provide Bill Belichick's receiver room another level of depth. Below we lay out some of the bigger names available, their ages, and a stat that might indicate how they could provide the Patriots some value. All stats are courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.

Randall Cobb, 28, 87.9 percent of snaps in the slot in 2018
(Update: Cobb has reportedly signed a one-year deal with Dallas)
Cobb has dealt with injuries in recent seasons, but he understands leverage and knows how to operate among the safeties and linebackers who occupy the middle of the field. He's also accustomed to working with a demanding quarterback, which might make a potential transition to New England a little smoother than it would be for others. Cobb likely won't command as much as other slots have this offseason considering he played in just nine games last season. Spotrac has his market value estimated at two years and about $8 million per year. Cobb will be 29 when the 2019 season begins.

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Jordy Nelson, 33, 100.9 rating when targeted in 2018
Nelson makes sense on a few different fronts, despite the fact he'd be among the oldest players on the Patriots roster. Like Cobb, he understands what it's like to play with a meticulous quarterback. Like Cobb, he has some slot experience, though not nearly as much. Last season, just over a third of his snaps (34.3) were run from the inside. That versatility, though, would suit Nelson in New England. Nelson's next team might also be intrigued by his production in a below-average offense. His 100.9 rating when targeted placed him ahead of Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Evans and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Signing Nelson would not count against New England's compensatory-pick formula since he was released by Oakland. He'll be 34 when the season begins.

Jermaine Kearse, 29, 1.79 yards per slot route run in 2017
The former Seahawks and Jets wideout is two years removed from a career year in which he had 65 grabs on 102 targets for 810 yards and five touchdowns. His 1.79 yards per route run from the slot that season put him ahead of Doug Baldwin, Jarvis Landry, Tyler Locket, Emmanuel Sanders and Crowder. Can he still hit that level? Kearse's pace slowed significantly last year, as he caught 37 passes for 371 yards with rookie Sam Darnold behind center in New York. In five career games against the Patriots, Kearse has 20 catches for 275 yards, including a 45-yard effort for Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. He played 77.5 percent of his snaps in the slot in 2018.

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Robby Anderson, 25, 16.5 average air yards per target in 2018
Anderson (6-3, 190) doesn't fit the profile of the types of receivers the Patriots have been after. He's not immune to slot work, but he saw just under 24 percent of his snaps come from the inside last season. He's more of a classic deep threat, as his 16.5 average air yards per target -- third in the league, per Next Gen Stats -- would indicate. The Patriots could benefit from that type of "X" receiver presence, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Josh Gordon's availability for next season. Anderson is a restricted free agent and has been given a second-round tender so not only would the Patriots need to give Anderson a contract, but they'd also have to relinquish a second-rounder. That might be a price to steep to pay, especially for someone who is just over a year removed from a high-profile arrest. Anderson will be 26 when the season begins. 

Pierre Garcon, 32, No. 19 receiver by PFF grade in 2017
This would be a lightning-in-a-bottle signing if it ever came to be. Garcon will be 33 when the 2019 season begins. He's played eight games in each of the last two seasons and 809 snaps total. He's had lingering knee issues, and he had to have arthroscopic knee surgery in December. In 2017, before his season was cut short, he hit a 1.79 yards per route run mark, placing him just ahead of then-Patriots wideout Brandin Cooks (1.78). If there's any chance he could get back to where he was before getting injured that season, he'd give the Patriots a boundary presence should Gordon be unavailable. 

Michael Crabtree, 31, 11.2 yards per catch in 2018
Hard to know where Crabtree's game is at given the situation he found himself in last year. He graded out as one of the worst receivers in the league among regulars, according to PFF, but when he caught passes, they usually resulted in chunks of yardage. That's saying something considering Baltimore's offense. His 13.2 percent of snaps in the slot last season won't put him on many radars for those looking for quick-hitting options, and there's not much about his recent past that screams he's deserving of a shot in New England. He did "squash" his beef with Aqib Talib, though, reportedly. At a go-kart track. So there's that.

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Patriots have been busy leading up to Tuesday trade deadline

Patriots have been busy leading up to Tuesday trade deadline

The Patriots have been actively preparing for Tuesday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline for weeks.

A source says they’ve spoken to virtually every team in the league and had conversations on more than two dozen players in play at a variety of positions.

It would be an upset if they don’t make some kind of move not just because of the amount of advance work they’ve done but also because they were making trade deadline moves when the rest of the league was still regarding that day as another Tuesday afternoon in October.

CURRAN'S HARD TRUTHS:

The names they’ve been linked to so far are recognizable ones: Denver’s Demaryius Thomas was mentioned by NFL Network’s Mike Giardi. Jay Glazer further reported the Patriots are willing to give up a high draft pick for a “bona fide premium wide receiver.” 

I don’t know what that combination of words exactly means, but calling the 31-year-old Thomas a “bona fide premium wide receiver” is aggressive. He’s entering his decline and has always struggled with drops (four this season, one for every 10 receptions in his career.

He’s earning an $8.5 million base salary this year or $531,250 per game so that would mean the Patriots would pay him $3.71M for seven games of work. Seems high. For them.

Other wideouts that could be on the move are DeSean Jackson (Tampa Bay) and Pierre Garcon (San Francisco).

Jackson is also 31 and his $10M salary means the Patriots would be laying out even more per game if they signed him. He is a free agent at the end of the year, though, so if he signs with another team in free agency after 2018 the Pats may get a minimal reward in the compensatory pick formula in 2020.

The most interesting target could be Garcon. He’s 32 and falling apart a bit physically. Shoulder and knee issues kept him out of Sunday’s game against Arizona, a neck injury landed him on IR in 2017. But he has a more manageable base salary than the Thomas or Jackson ($6.625M) and the Niners owe the Patriots a decade of favors for gift-wrapping Jimmy Garoppolo to them last year at the trade deadline.

Why is a receiver even on the Patriots wish list with Josh Gordon doing more than anyone could have projected, Julian Edelman back from suspension and the Phillip Dorsett/Chris Hogan tandem returned to complementary roles where they are most effective?

Perhaps because all of those players need backup? Gordon is a slip-up away from being suspended, the 32-year-old Edelman’s playing style invites calamity and Hogan goes down like a bag of hammers every time he gets tackled.

Between those three, the somewhat injured Gronk and the totally injured Michel, athletic tape will be used.

Which brings us back to Garcon, who may be less durable than all of them.

So it’s a quandary if a “premium, bona fide, USDA, Angus wide receiver” is in the Patriots sights.

Cap damage will be done and the Patriots don’t have a ton of it. And the Patriots – always cognizant of value and keeping draft resources – would be putting the match to a draft pick on a less-than-sure thing.

Then there’s the learning curve. Gordon’s managed it well but his doing so and the praise he’s gotten for accomplishing something others have rarely done in the past just underscores the fact it’s not a plug-and-play position for the Patriots.

The Patriots paid Brandin Cooks $1.5M in salary and bonuses in 2017. When he was due $8.5M in salary this year – same as Thomas – the team shipped him to the Rams and got a first-round pick back.

The compensation for Cooks looks terrific on a spreadsheet. He was essentially a no-cost, all-upside rental since the team initially sacrificed a first-rounder to get him.

But if the wideout concern for the Patriots remains this high on Halloween, it’s worth debating whether keeping him around for $531,250 per week and forgoing the first-rounder they got back from the Rams would have been a smoother move than trying to trade for Demaryius Thomas.

If the Patriots are even actively doing that.

Talks are just talk until there’s action. 

 

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