Saturday, April 12, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 5: Patriots loaded at receiver, but why not take a look?

At the end of last season, the New England Patriots receiving corps looked more like a collection of leftovers from a triage room pick-up game than a depth chart full of pass catchers.

That is not to mean that they aren't professional athletes, but how could one tell otherwise when the only healthy pass catchers on the field for the AFC Title tilt atrocity was a try-hard munchkin surrounded by a guy with no adductor muscle, another who is a concussion-in-waiting and another gutting out a broken foot that required offseason surgery.

The others were all in the infirmary with one malady or another - except Kenbrell Thompkins, who had hit the rookie wall so hard that had he been picking his nose it would have broken his finger - and without them, the Denver Broncos were able to concentrate on stopping the Patriots' power running game by stacking the box, knowing from their studies that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would abandon the running game if it wasn't initially successful, rendering quarterback Tom Brady a sitting duck.

Yet, there were the Patriots making a run at the Broncos in the fourth quarter.

Of course, the run fell short and the Broncos went on to get the stuffing kicked out of them in the Super Bowl - but one has to think that had the Patriots their receiving corps intact, the outcome of the AFC Championship game would have been much different.

True, the entire team took the loss, and many will tell you it was because the Patriots pass rush couldn't get to Peyton Manning, which they couldn't - but the fact remains that the defense held Manning and the juggernaut Broncos' offense to just 26 points, which came on four field goals and two Manning touchdown throws.

Sorry folks, it wasn't the much-maligned defense to blame for the Patriots losing their second consecutive title game - it was a lack of receiving weapons and a general lack of guidance and execution on offense that did them in - for the second year in a row.

The execution part of things - well - let's just say that those are two games that Brady and McDaniels would like to have back.  Both were ordinary in losses to the Ravens and Broncos, but there is little doubt that a full compliment of playmakers probably would have made a significant impact in the game...

...and while the biggest loss in each game was not having their true number one receiver, tight end Rob Gronkowski, on the field due to perpetual injury, it is equally true that there was enough talent on the receiving depth chart to overcome his omission, had injury not taken it's toll.

This is all very redundant, however.  The point - if it hasn't been made painfully clear by now - is that there is plenty of talent, quality depth as well, and there's really no reason to go all first round in bulking up an already very good stable of pass catchers.

This is not to say that if a top talent somehow landed in Belichick's wheelhouse that he wouldn't seriously consider it - and that goes for any position on the field, because let's face it: When healthy, this team is stacked.

No?  They are young, there is no doubt, what with four second year players to go along with veterans Danny Amendola, Julien Edelman and newly acquired Brandon LaFell - speedy big man Aaron Dobson, surprise possession guy in Thompkins, lightning quick Josh Boyce and an unknown quantity in big-bodied Mark Harrison...

...and what makes this group so intriguing is the mystery surrounding both Harrison and LaFell and what they bring to the table that could have the Patriots laying off receivers in the draft.

LaFell is a veteran from Carolina that was set all over the alignment but saw most of his snaps in the slot - in New England the slot is well accounted for so LaFell projects as a possession-type flanker who will pull a defensive back to the sideline where he will use his outstanding size combined with the sideline to give Brady a reliable back shoulder chain mover...

...while the book on Harrison includes blazing speed for a man 6' 3" and 235 pounds at 4.46, but is a sluggish route runner and struggles with routes that break to the outside - which leaves him an interior seam stretcher who just happens to be an outstanding downfield blocker.

With those two, the Patriots have a bigger version of what they hoped that Brandon Lloyd would have been two years ago in LaFell, and a vertical seam presence with downfield blocking capabilities in Harrison that the team hasn't seen since Aaron Hernandez, again, two years ago.

When integrated with the skill of Rob Gronkowski, the speed of Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce and the underneath possession mastery of Amendola, Edelman and Thompkins, the Patriots do indeed have plenty of intrigue among the pass catchers.

Be that as it may, Belichick will probably bring in four or five more receivers to fill out the training camp roster, but will those players come off the waiver wire, the draft or from the glut of undrafted prospects that are sure to be available after the draft?

While it seems unlikely that Belichick would devote first or second round draft capital on a receiver, that assumption may be subject to revision should the right kid slide down the board and land in Bill's lap.

Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin is just such a kid.  At a monstrous 6' 5" and 240 pounds, Benjamin does it all, including blowing off coaches who make appointments to work him out.  As reported recently, Benjamin didn't work out for an NFL coach, citing exhaustion - and everyone know what happens if a player takes that kind of attitude with Belichick...

...they get cut faster than you can say "Brandon Spikes to the IR" - but both Benjamin and his agent deny the report and many analysts insist that if Benjamin did refuse to work out, it was on the advice of his agent to prevent unneccesary injury before the draft - whatever the case, Benjamin's stock dropped about 10 spots with the inuendo and is now projected late first, early second rounds.

As for where he might fit with the Patriots, please see Mark Harrison above - but as for how New England approaches this draft, the feeling here is that if they do use draft capital on a pass catcher, there are three things that will likely influence who they target:

First, judging from the bulk they've gone after everywhere in free agency, the player will be a larger target as the Patriots look likely to address their "move tight end" deficiency with either a mid-round tight end or big wide receiver selection, which could be trumped if a desired player deemed out of their reach in the first two rounds falls into their lap - both of those criteria trumped by whether they view receiver as a need at all.

If they do indeed view the position as a need, Benjamin or Penn State receiver Allen Robinson could fill the bill, though the 6' 2", 220 pounder is more of an outside the numbers target and has a little Brandon Lloyd in him as he will look for a place to sit down after the catch rather than look for extra yardage..

That said, Robinson ran wild in Bill O'Brien's pro set offense, which gives him a distinct advantage over other possession-type receivers as O'Brien took his offense from Foxborough to Happy Valley a couple of years back and he should be available in the mid-to-late second round.

Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews is a thin 6' 3", 210 pounds but runs a 4.46 and catches everything thrown his way and lines up everywhere - seriously needs to add some bulk to his frame but would be a steal in the late second, early third rounds, as would Fresno State receiver Davante Adams, one of the smaller pass catchers on this list but also one of the most exciting in terms of downfield production.

Mississippi's Donte Moncrief is even faster and is aware of where everyone is supposed to be - and where the sticks and goal line are and uses leverage and huge jumping advantage to win contests with NFL sized corners - Moncrief is also a terrific blocker and hasn't realized his potential, the kind of kid that will develop his skill while terrorizing NFL secondaries.

Players from Rutgers permeate the structure of this Patriots' team, so it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see the Scarlet Knights' Brandon Coleman selected just due to his incredible size.  Featuring possession receiver speed, the 6" 6", 230 pound Coleman should be available in the late third round, possibly even the fourth round as his elusiveness has yet to catch up with his long legs and is a bit gangly - but is well worth a flyer on the second day.

Saginaw Valley State's Jeff Janis headlines late second / early third day prospects with his sub 4.4 speed and incredible leaping ability.  Janis also has some Lloyd in him, seeking to get to the ground after the catch and gets lost in heavy traffic - but all things considered, he is an intriguing speed merchant with the intangibles (6' 3", 220 pounds) worthy of a fourth or fifth round selection... is Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis who is rail thin and needs some NFL weight room exposure, but is incredibly intelligent and mature and has been described by friend and foe alike as a coach on the field.  His average elusiveness after the catch and concussion history have prompted his slide to a fifth round prospect.

If there is one late round prospect of note, teams with a keen eye will take a look at Alabama's Kevin Norwood, an exceptional route runner with great concentration and hands and sub 4.5 speed and is a try hard pass catcher with undeniable character, but will be available in the sixth round due to having troubles coming off jams at the line and is purely a receiver, not showing blocking ability and has limited elusiveness after the catch.

Obviously, there are a hundred other receivers that could be profiled, but if the Patriots are looking for a pass catcher in this draft, the likely scenario will be a bigger kid that can stretch the seam and/or use the sidelines effectively.

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