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.”Continued...