As the countdown to Thursday night’s first round commences, it’s time for Belichick and the Patriots to throw another curveball.
Belchick has never drafted a receiver in the first round. Not in New England. And not in Cleveland, either.
If there’s any year for that to change, it’s this one.
The Patriots have an organizational philosophy not to go into any draft with a glaring need. Not only does that free them up to take the best player available, it further camouflages their intention when it’s their time to pick. That increases the chances that a player they covet will fall to them.
The Patriots did very well this offseason to fill nearly all of their holes, which ranged from replacing Wes Welker’s talent and durability at “Z” receiver (Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman), to re-signing Niko Koutouvides at backup linebacker/special teams.
The free agency period may have lacked the pizzazz that some fans wanted — ignoring that the proverbial “one player to put a team over the top” theory is in a realm with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster — but it was effective.
Sebastian Vollmer’s return allows Marcus Cannon to compete, if needed, at right guard with Dan Connolly. That leaves only two glaring needs for the Patriots: receiver and a third pass rusher. The latter could still arrive — as late as the preseason — in John Abraham or Dwight Freeney.
Both veteran standouts are still on the market. Unless a team wants to meet their contract demands, both might be content to wait until the end of training camp — an annoyance for many veterans — to accept a cut-rate deal.
So there are options for the Patriots in the pass rush department.
That is not the case at receiver. The Patriots’ last and best chance to add a contributing weapon ended when the Steelers matched the third-round offer sheet to Emmanuel Sanders. A return by the mercurial Brandon Lloyd seems very much a long shot — he was that much of a problem to deal with — but desperate times call for desperate measures, so it can’t be ruled out.
That leaves the draft.
Most years, the Patriots would be content to bide their time and take a receiver in the second or third round. It certainly lessens the risk at one of the most bust-able positions in the draft. But with the advent of the rookie cap in the new CBA, the risk is minimal drafting any position. The days of paying long-term for draft errors — especially late in the first round — are largely gone.
And the fact is, the longer a team waits to draft a receiver, the less chance that player has of contributing as a rookie, according to a study done by Tom Pelissero of 1500-ESPN Twin Cities.
Since 1991, there have been 83 receivers taken in the first round. Of those, 21 (25.3 percent) caught at least 50 passes as a rookie.
There have been 88 receivers taken in the second round. Only 10 (11.4 percent) caught at least 50 passes as a rookie.
And this is a year when the Patriots need instant impact. Welker and Lloyd are gone. At tight end, Rob Gronkowski’s health is a question mark, Aaron Hernandez has yet to stay healthy for a full season, and Jake Ballard and Brad Herman are coming back from serious injuries.
The recent signings at receiver — Amendola, Edelman, Donald Jones, and Mike Jenkins — look adequate on paper, but all have had injury issues.
The Patriots could really solidify their offense if they can identify an instant contributor at receiver in the draft. That’s where the team has been weakest in the biggest games.
Critics like to point to the defense, but with every starter back, that unit should see dynamic growth, especially in the secondary. Could they use another pass rusher, especially with Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham entering the final years of their contracts? Certainly. Could the Patriots use another interior presence with Vince Wilfork being relied on more and more at 31, and Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick entering contract years? Without question. Could the Patriots use another good cornerback? Sure.
But more explosion on offense is the more pressing need for the Patriots to ascend to the top of the NFL once again.
The constant theme in season-ending losses of late has been an inability to put enough points on the board. Dating to the Super Bowl loss to the Giants after the 2007 season, the Patriots have scored 14, 14, 14 (if you take out the garbage-time Deion Branch touchdown late vs. Jets), 17, and 13 points in playoff games that ended their seasons.
Complain all you want about the defense, but 14.4 points per game is not good enough in today’s NFL. The Patriots have won just two playoff games when scoring fewer than 20 points: 17 vs. the Titans in ’03 and 16 vs. the Raiders in ’01, and the game has changed much since then.
The Patriots averaged 20.0, 24.3, and 28.3 points in the three postseasons that ended in Super Bowl victories. The last six Super Bowl champions have averaged 31.0 (Ravens), 25.5 (Giants), 30.3 (Packers), 35.7 (Saints), 28.3 (Steelers), and 21.3 points (Giants).
The Patriots need to become more dangerous on offense to win the biggest games. Will they roll up countless yards and points in the regular season? Of course, unless their health becomes a huge problem. Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Tom Brady can pick apart a great majority of defenses.
But in the biggest games and against the toughest defenses, they have been shut down. Repeatedly.
A talented young receiver from the draft would help. The Patriots’ terrible track record finding one is well-known. It’s time to change the formula. Stop looking at three-cone times and athletic ability. Look for the most polished player with the type of high football IQ that will allow him to learn the playbook quickly and endear himself to Brady. He has to get on the field before he can catch a pass.
The receivers in this draft that have the best chance are Robert Woods (USC), Keenan Allen (Cal), Chris Harper (Kansas State), Marquise Goodwin (Texas), Josh Boyce (TCU), Tavarres King (Georgia), Cobi Hamilton (Arkansas), and Aaron Mellette (Elon).
The feeling here is that Woods offers the best chance at instant impact. He has been highly productive in a pro-style offense, makes terrific cuts in and out of breaks, and shows a great feel for routes and the game.
He’s not the most dynamic player, but neither was Lloyd, and Woods looks like he can give what Lloyd did and add toughness and yards after the catch.
But the Patriots have studied these prospects much longer and more closely than I have. As long as they pick the right player, it doesn’t matter who it is. The offense needs help. It’s way past time for the Patriots to find a viable receiver in the draft.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.