Tim O’Sullivan: Patriots may be on receiving end in draft
It’s always been difficult deciphering what the Patriots were going to do in the draft in recent years. This year, it might be near impossible.
With few consensus top-end picks but a decent amount of quality depth, it feels futile predicting what any team is going to do with tonight’s first-round picks, or tomorrow’s second- and third-round picks, or Saturday’s selections in rounds four through seven. All the mock drafts floating around this week will probably be easy to mock when the real draft is complete.
With that much fluidity looming, the usually active Bill Belichick could trade down, as he’s known to do, dealing the No. 29 pick and adding to the team’s small total of five picks (Nos. 29, 59, 91, 226, 235). He could trade up, as he did last year to much surprise and with much success, landing Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. Or he could stay put and snag a player that falls through the uncertain first round.
Of course, that’s the easy way out of the prognostication game, since the Patriots must follow one of those paths. So even though any direction seems possible, here’s a best-guess prediction: Belichick trades down for two later-round picks and then takes a wide receiver in tomorrow’s second round.
With Wes Welker defecting to Denver and Brandon Lloyd released, there’s no question New England has a need at receiver. Sure, they have already brought in free agents Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones, but there’s a disturbing trend of free agent receivers failing in Foxborough – just ask Chad “Don’t call me Ochocinco” Johnson or Joey
Galloway. And since the Patriots tried to sign Emmanuel Sanders away from the Steelers, it seems they think adding another quality receiver is a good idea.
Areas of need, however, don’t often concern Belichick and his right-hand draft man, Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio. They prize value above all else. If there’s a player available who they believe is significantly more talented than anyone else left, they will take that player.
Yet wide receiver is one of the positions of depth in this draft, so there should be talent left by the time the Patriots’ second-round pick comes up at No. 59. That depth includes a good number of taller, faster receivers who can thrive on the outside, which is exactly where New England needs help.
Da’Rick Rogers (6-foot-1, Tennessee Tech), Terrance Williams (6-1, Baylor) and Ryan Swope (6-1, Texas A&M) are some of the bigger receivers expected to be available in the second round. West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey (5-10) and Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton (5-11) don’t have exceptional height, but both are fast enough to be the type of deep threat Tom Brady and the New England offense needs to open up the middle of the field for the tight ends, slot receivers and running backs.
Even if the Patriots trade their second pick, or wait until the third round to take a receiver, there should still be some interesting choices left. Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills is 6-1 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at the combine, but some off-the-field questions should drop him to the third round. Marshall’s Aaron Dobson is a 6-2 downfield threat who is also expected to be around in the third round, and the Pats have had good luck with Thundering Herd pass catchers (Troy Brown and Randy Moss).
If Belichick does take a receiver at or near the top of this draft, it will cause some anxiety for more than a few New England fans. The hoodie doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to this approach. There was Taylor Price in the 2010 third round, Brandon Tate in the 2009 third round, and perhaps the most infamous of all, the trade up to get Chad Jackson in the 2006 second round, the 36th overall pick.
During his press conference on Monday, Caserio was asked how the team fixed past draft mistakes. The question didn’t include the words “receivers” or “Chad Jackson,” but they were implied.
“We’re always trying to find ways to improve our systems and make them better, whatever it may be. It’s an organizational philosophy of always trying to improve, always trying to get better, in the name of trying to win games,” Caserio said. “Whether it’s the draft, free agency, undrafted free agency, whatever it may be, the most important thing is about winning games.”
Here are a few more things to watch for as the brain trust tries to improve the roster:
∎ It’s a strong possibility that a cornerback from Connecticut will be part of the team by the end of the weekend. Belichick went to the UConn Pro Day in person, which surprised many, and was believed to be paying special attention to corner Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Wreh-Wilson has good size (6-0, 190 pounds), is physical, and returned two of seven career interceptions for touchdowns. But don’t be surprised if the Pats take UConn’s other corner, Dwayne Gratz, who some scouts say looks better on tape than Wreh-Wilson.
∎ Chances are, only a few dedicated draft-heads will still be watching once the seventh round rolls around, but don’t sleep on these final picks. New England has found plenty of gold this deep in the draft, with Matt Cassel, Alfonzo Dennard, Julian Edelman, Tully Banta-Cain, David Givens, Patrick Pass and Brandon Deadrick all arriving in the seventh.
∎ Don’t forget, the team-building won’t end when the draft does. If the Patriots only make those five picks (Belichick has never made fewer than six picks during his time in New England), they will need to sign a significant number of undrafted free agents to fill out the roster. And the team has had good success finding these players: Brandon Bolden, Justin Francis, Dane Fletcher and BenJarvus Green-Ellis all came to New England via that route. A potential candidate this year is New Hampshire linebacker Matt Evans, who could become an NFL special teams ace in the mold of Larry Izzo.
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)