The Patriots are unquestionably one of the NFL’s superpowers — if not the dominant team.
Their résumé under coach Bill Belichick since 2001 is well-documented. The three Super Bowl titles. A sixth straight AFC East title next season would be the longest streak in the NFL since 1979 (a four-year streak was interrupted by Tom Brady’s knee injury in 2008). And they are the only team to have recorded nine or more wins in each of the last 12 seasons.
You only get that kind of sustained excellence from home growing your core, and the Patriots have done that. From Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, and Tedy Bruschi to Brady, Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins, and Vince Wilfork, the Patriots have been the best because their best have been drafted, taught and nurtured to become champions.
That has continued in recent years at several positions. Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, Rob Gronkowski, Nate Solder, Stevan Ridley, and Chandler Jones look to be or are the next bedrocks.
But draft success has eluded the Patriots in two key areas — wide receiver and the secondary — in recent years to threaten the franchise’s championship aspirations. A receiver here or a shutdown cornerback there certainly could have helped the near misses.
So desperate for help after a slew of draft disappointments and outright failings, the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick for twice-suspended cornerback Aqib Talib to play six regular-season games. And this month, the Patriots were prepared to send a third-round pick to the Steelers to sign receiver Emmanuel Sanders on just a one-year contract.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Patriots were gasping for air at both spots. They still are.
But this year’s draft, which starts Thursday night, will offer New England a chance to right the ship at both spots, if it chooses to do so with its (for now) five picks. The talent is deep at receiver, cornerback, and safety. But that only matters if the Patriots heed their mistakes and find the right players.
Best options slip through their fingers
The receiver position has been an abject failure for the Patriots. Since 2002, when they plucked Deion Branch and David Givens in the second and seventh rounds, respectively, the Patriots have drafted eight receivers, including two each in the second (Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson) and third rounds (Brandon Tate, Taylor Price). Those eight receivers have combined for 140 catches, 1,835 yards, and 14 touchdowns. Julian Edelman, the college quarterback who was a seventh-round pick in 2009, is the bellwether with 69 catches for 714 yards and four touchdowns.
The Jets have drafted six receivers since 2004 — none earlier than the fourth round, before Stephen Hill was selected in the second round last season — and have 150 catches for 1,835 yards and 10 touchdowns, before you even count Jerricho Cotchery’s 358/4,514/18 in a Jets uniform as the lone fourth-round pick.
“Even [Bill] Belichick would admit they’ve been terrible,” said an NFC general manager. “I mean, those guys haven’t done anything after they’ve left, either. They’re just bad.”
The logical question — why? — has several answers, according to those around the league and close to the Patriots. First of all, almost every team struggles to some degree — the position has one of the highest bust rates.
“I think it’s a universal problem to begin with,” said one AFC general manager. “The college game is not kind to the evaluation process for receivers. Receivers in pro football require the ability to separate from man coverage and have great hands. In college football, receivers can just come off the line at any pace they want, catch a curl pattern, and people get up and think they’re great. In the NFL, that route doesn’t really exist very much.”
The evolution of the spread offense isn’t helping, and it’s dominating the college game.
“Very often these receivers don’t run routes, don’t have to make adjustments, and it’s just pitch and catch. And that’s not the case in the NFL,” said NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell. “I think it’s hard [to project college receivers], I really do.”
That has led Belichick to look more toward free agents.
“I think the college passing game is a lot different than the [pro] passing game,” he said. “We all look at the same film. We’re all trying to evaluate the same players. But it’s a lot easier to watch a guy in the NFL perform and translate his skills for your team than watch a guy in college perform because of the discrepancy in the passing game.”
But other teams have shown an ability to do it, such as the Packers. They’ve taken four receivers in the first three rounds since 2006 — Greg Jennings (’06), James Jones (’07), Jordy Nelson (’08), and Randall Cobb (’11) — and hit big on all of them.
John Dorsey, who ran the Packers’ college scouting before becoming GM of the Chiefs this year, said there isn’t a magic formula.
“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “If you can’t catch the ball, you can’t be productive in the NFL. It’s your ability to run routes, it’s your physical traits of explosion and speed with that combination, and ability to run after the catch. And you factor in the passion for the game. You take the other traits that are unseen.”
It’s those hard-to-quantify traits that have eluded the Patriots, and part of it has to do with Brady and the system. The Patriots use one of the most complicated schemes for a receiver because so much is predicated on post-snap reads and option routes. If a defender plays a certain way — even mid-route — both the receiver and Brady have to read it the same way. How is a rookie, who didn’t have to do anything like that in college, suddenly supposed to be in synch with a future Hall of Famer in his 13th year in the same system?
“It creates a separation between the young player and the rest of the offense,” said a team source. “Some kid from Tennessee, Cordarrelle Patterson, he’s not going to learn Day One of the offense and Brady’s never going to run Day One offense. So, there lies the problem.”
Another problem could be the evaluation. Belichick never has taken a receiver in the first round, and the two he traded up for in the second round — Jackson (’06) and Johnson (’03) — were colossal busts (Belichick went against the consensus of his scouts on Jackson). When former Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff asked Belichick what he thought about his pending move up 21 spots in exchange for his own first-rounder and an additional four picks (first, second, and two fourths) to pick Alabama receiver Julio Jones, Belichick told Dimitroff he wouldn’t do it, according to “War Room” by Michael Holley. Belichick thought there wasn’t a big difference between Jones and Pittsburgh’s Jonathan Baldwin, who went 26th to former Patriots personnel director Scott Pioli with the Chiefs. Jones has 133 catches for 2,157 yards and 12 touchdowns; Baldwin 41 for 579 and two touchdowns. Of course, Jones had Matt Ryan throwing to him and Baldwin had Matt Cassel.
Perhaps Belichick will rely more on two coaches that have returned to the flock: offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and assistant Brian Daboll. McDaniels drafted starting receivers Demaryius Thomas (first round) and Eric Decker (third) in 2010 with the Broncos. Daboll didn’t have much success finding receivers with the Jets, Browns, Dolphins or Chiefs, but he was against drafting Jackson with the Patriots.
All of the receivers the Patriots have drafted certainly have been talented. But they’re all missing something, and the constant seems to be an inability to learn the playbook and assimilate into the system. That’s something even NFL veterans such as Joey Galloway and Chad Ochocinco failed at. It’s hard not to notice that Branch, the only drafted star, had by far the highest Wonderlic score (26) of the known results for Patriots receivers. It’s an imperfect tool to gauge how someone processes information, but it’s an indicator.
The Patriots certainly can’t rely on watching film to assess how well a receiver can play for them. They put an emphasis on catching and gaining separation. Both are categories that Ochocinco excelled at, even at age 32, when he landed with the Patriots in 2011.
What the Patriots failed to uncover in their research of Ochocinco, was that former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer never knew where Ochocinco was going to end up; he just improvised. But Palmer was smart enough to know Ochocinco would be open, so Palmer stared him down — which led to some errors, more toward the end of their stays in Cincinnati. That stuff does not fly with Brady. At all.
If the Patriots are to add some young talent at receiver this year, after 11 years of striking out, they’re going to have to identify players who think better and faster than they run and catch. That will come from extensive study, testing (teams give their own IQ/aptitude tests), interviews, and board work with the prospects.
“It is a total-package situation,” Dimitroff said. “We watch the film, obviously, evaluate video up and down, we talk to the coaches, assess his intelligence. That’s a big thing as well, but not always the intelligence on paper as it may be his football intelligence, which is something that we’ll all talk about a lot. This is about really taking it all into consideration and watch how he does adjusting on the field. It’s many, many hours of evaluation and discussion.”
The scouting combine administered a new aptitude test this year, which Dimitroff and Pioli had input on, and the biggest goal is to assess what’s inside a player. The results aren’t yet known.
“I haven’t found a test that really measures reactive quickness,” Pioli said at the Sloan Sports Conference at MIT. “Most of these drills are them performing on their own. Then there’s this element of reactive quickness and speed — so much of this game is reaction — and it’s based on seeing, processing, and then moving the feet. And that’s hard to quantify.”
If the Patriots can find a way to do that, they may finally develop a receiver from within.
Chosen ones have not had it covered
Compared to the receiver position, the Patriots have stocked their secondary through the draft like a grocery store before Thanksgiving. But overall, it hasn’t been terrific.
At least there’s some promise there. Two of the picks from last year, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (seventh round) and safety Tavon Wilson (second) certainly have a chance. Dennard might not have a high ceiling, but he looks to be a solid starter. And the Patriots are excited that Wilson could grab a starting role this season and be a mainstay. The ceiling for safety Nate Ebner (sixth round) may only be as a special teams stud — the Matthew Slater of defense — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Devin McCourty, only the second defensive back taken by Belichick in the first round, in 2010, looks to have finally settled in at his true position, safety, after an uneven start to his career at cornerback.
Before that, you could make a convincing case that only safety Eugene Wilson (’03, second round), Asante Samuel (’03, fourth), and James Sanders (’05, fourth) have met or exceeded expectations.
And the Patriots have missed on some decent picks: corner Ras-I Dowling (second), safety Patrick Chung (second), corner Darius Butler (second), corner Terrence Wheatley (second), safety Brandon Meriweather (first), safety Guss Scott (third), and corner Brock Williams (third).
Meriweather, who played in two Pro Bowls (but was only voted in once), is certainly up for debate. But instead of keeping him on the roster for one more season and at basically no cost, the Patriots cut Meriweather heading into the final year of his rookie contract while retaining Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, and James Ihedigbo. That spoke volumes, as has Meriweather’s lack of production elsewhere since his release.
“Certainly they’ve struggled in the secondary,” said Cosell. “They have drafted a lot of players within the top three rounds. Couldn’t you make the argument that basically none of them have worked out?”
Patriots defensive backs have had a distinct lack of success, for them and other teams. That would seem to take some of the heat off cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, whom many fans — and some Patriots players — grumble about.
“Nah, that’s not it,” said a team source. “The coaches are coaching the players based on what Bill is telling them. If it was the coaching, one of those [released players] would have done something somewhere else. They’ve done nothing.”
Like the receiver position, both cornerback and safety are among the most difficult to project because — unlike the positions closest to the ball on offense and defense — the college and pro games are so different.
“I find the safety position to be the toughest position to evaluate in college,” Cosell said. “There are times that you can go through three or four games and I still feel like I don’t have a feel for safety. Bill Belichick knows a lot more than I do, but I would bet at times you feel like you’re not 100 percent certain. So then you have to do all that other stuff, with interviews and everything else, and at some point that stops because you’re not actually watching a guy play football.
“I think corner is probably tough, too. I think you’re seeing a little more press coverage in college now, so maybe that will help. You used to see very little press coverage. At least you can look at that now. There are a lot more combination routes in the NFL than there are in college. I think it’s more of a mental game. You want your corner to have physical tools, no question, but I think it’s much more of a mental game as much as it is for receivers, quite honestly.”
The Patriots do seem to be synching up their talent and scheme a little better. For years, Belichick’s scheme relied on mostly zone coverage. Samuel, in his prime, was arguably the best zone corner in the league. The past two years, with the rise in accurate quarterback play, the Patriots have played more man concepts. That was a big reason why McCourty stumbled so badly. He was a terrific zone corner in college at Rutgers and as a rookie, but the Patriots switched to more man in 2011 and McCourty wasn’t ready.
“As a zone cornerback, you need a guy who is instinctual because a zone corner will have his eyes on the quarterback and needs to feel routes,” said Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, McCourty’s college coach. “Some guys can look at that sign and see everything going on around them. Other guys can only see the sign, and you’d be a better man corner. Some guys can play man to man and can’t finish the play because they don’t have the ball skills. Zone corners are usually a little harder to find. There’s not a lot of pure zone anymore, it’s more a matchup zone.”
With Talib playing on only a one-year contract, the Patriots may need to draft a bigger cover corner this year to protect themselves heading into next season. They haven’t been able to draft one of those yet.
“I think it’s a big problem, and it’s going to be a problem in this draft because there are a lot of corners in this draft that have names, but there’s not a lot of corners that have production,” said an AFC general manager. “Let’s take the two UConn kids [Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson]. Both of them are very athletic. Both had decent college tape. But at the end of the day, they’ll do things in college that they’ll never do in the pros. And you really have a hard time evaluating. Whereas [Alabama’s Dee] Milliner, you can watch him play a pro style and you feel pretty good about him. And so what happens at corners, especially the one who aren’t clean — the ones that aren’t easy to evaluate on tape — they tend to err on the side of athleticism, and when you do that you give up a sense of production and instincts. And we lose a little bit at the corner position in terms of the instinctiveness that it requires to play. I think we’ve all tried to err on the side of athleticism. And that err has caused us to make mistakes.”
The Patriots seemed to do that in 2011 when they passed on trading the first pick in the second round (33d overall) and drafted Dowling out of Virginia.
Not only did he have a history of injuries — and continues to — but the Patriots aren’t sure they assessed his makeup correctly. Does he have the guts of a burglar to be an aggressive, press corner? The jury is very much still out.
“It’s all hard because you’re on an island and you’re typically matched up against a great athlete as well and they know where they’re going and you don’t,” said Broncos coach John Fox. “So, there’s an art to being a defensive back. It’s a tough job. It’s like quarterback — it’s a little bit tougher than other positions. It is hard, but when you find one and you can defend half the field and isolate from the other part of the field, that’s a huge advantage defensively.”
The Patriots found a player with that potential with the trade for Talib. If they can’t or choose not to identify a successor in the draft, they might have to dish out a huge contract for Talib next year. Finding a corner would be much cheaper.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.