Monday, March 21, 2016

Free Agency vs. Draft - Pass Catcher Possibilities For The Patriots

Shepard has elite separation skills and goes deep from the slot
Trying to project what New England Patriots defacto General Manager Bill Belichick will do in the offseason to build his team to an elite level is an exercise in futility - and since he doesn't have a first round pick to ponder, that makes it even less likely that anyone will figure out what he's going to do.

But we can try, as his best bet for an immediate impact player may be in free agency, while his M.O. with rookies coming in through the draft process is to bring them along slowly and let them learn from the veterans.

That said, and with there being needs at weakside linebacker, running back, wide receiver and for a swing tackle on the offensive line and perhaps an outside the numbers press corner (which varies wildly depending on who you talk to) there figures to be a combination of tenured veterans and raw rookie talent finding their way to Foxborough in the next six weeks.

The New England Patriots' pass catching corps have too much of a good thing.

Well, perhaps that is understating the obvious, as they actually have an embarrassment of riches for quarterback Tom Brady to target in the passing game, so could they possibly be looking to add rookies to the log jam?

Before Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick went on a free agency rampage and secured the talents of former Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, the feeling among most experts was that Brady needed a speedy target to tear the lid off of the defense vertically - but now, even the most ardent supporter of that notion has to admit that Belichick is going heavy and physical.

Besides, the Patriots have never been about going vertical, except for the seasons that they had Randy Moss and Dante Stallworth, but that was another time long past.

Rather, the Patriots are more about spreading a defense horizontally, taking opposing corners outside the numbers to the sidelines on dig routes and isolation flats, the tight ends and possession receivers running crossers and seams, while a seemingly endless parade of passing backs wheel out of the backfield and into the pattern...

...and always within a box that extends to both sidelines and up the field no more than 25 yards.

Why? Because that is Brady's effective range on his deadly accuracy. Beyond that, it's a crap shoot. Now, if there were a receiver out there in free agency or in the draft that had elite speed and was adept at adjusting his route to run underneath wherever his long throws end up, then that player would be squarely on Belichick's radar, but there aren't too many Randy Moss clones out there to be had.

That was the thing about Moss. He was a once in a lifetime talent that could go get the balls that other players couldn't. He had the desire, the heart and the rare physical skill and god-given intangibles that made him the best pure pass catcher ever to play for the Patriots, and perhaps the greatest of all time.

The point here is not to crown Moss with any sort of title, rather, to warn off Patriots' fans that want this college receiver or that one, this free agent or that. You have to research what the Patriots do on offense, you have to look at what's already on the roster and keep track of trends - and what you find is that Belichick selects the receivers that he does for a reason.

Every player he brings in, he has a specific purpose for, and that purpose is to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses on an individual basis, then meld 53 different skill sets into a game day roster that gives his team the best chance to succeed - and he's been right a hell of a lot more than he's been wrong.

All of that said, who is out there, either in free agency or coming out of college, that could satiate the population who want a Johnny Torch deep threat, but also a guy that goes and gets the ball, wherever it may be?

Tulsa's Keyarris Garrett is as close as you're going to come in this draft class to a Randy Moss comparison because, in fact, Moss was mentioned a couple of times in his draft profiles:
"With a combination of height, strong hands and the speed to streak away from opponents, there were moments in 2015 in which Garrett brought back memories of a young Randy Moss. While he possesses the talent to warrant early round consideration, Garrett remains quite raw and may need a strong supporting staff and patience to maximize his potential." - Rob Rang, CBS Sports
Garrett has requisite size at 6' 3" and 220 pounds, but on paper he does not possess the same vertical speed and route running that screams deep threat, yet he somehow manages separation. The supporting staff is in place in Foxborough, and they have proven to be patient to a fault with their receivers, so Garrett could very well land in New England, particularly with having a late second day, early third day draft profile.

Clemson's Charrone Peake has the speed to take the top off of a defense, even after two knee surgeries, and had to sit behind DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins until he got his chance to be the Tigers' number one, but didn't post the eye-popping numbers that the aforementioned NFL stars did in their tenure. He has the size at 6' 2" and 210 pounds, but his medical charts and smallish hands have him graded out as a late fourth or early fifth round selection.

Many mock drafts have the Patriots selecting Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the second round, but Miller is a gadget player who needs a tremendous amount of work at route running - which isn't necessarily his fault as he switched positions from quarterback to receiver late in his college career, but that doesn't change the fact that he is more of a project than the Patriots may be willing to take on...

...which may or may not be true, because with the addition of veteran receiver Chris Hogan from the Bills in free agency, there is enough veteran talent for Belichick to be comfortable with bringing a kid with a lot of upside in and coaching him up, integrating him into the offense slowly.

Because as it stands, New England is suddenly loaded down with pass catching talent, and it's not just at wide receiver.

As a matter of fact, the tight end duo of All Pro Rob Gronkowski and Pro Bowl talent Martellus Bennett dominate the landscape in Foxborough, and the dual passing back threat of the electric Dion Lewis and the sneaky James White complement the wide receivers in such a way that they nearly could switch the tables and make the receivers the complement to the rest of the offense.

Even the depth behind Julian Edelman,Hogan and DannyAmendola has potential with Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper having some promise, while up-until-now bust Aaron Dobson could miraculously become a deep to intermediate threat between now and September, though that seems like a long shot.

So assuming that the Patriots have the talent curve that would allow them to coach up a project receiver,Miller could certainly still be on the table, but not at a second round grade, as a project should come from the middle rounds, like Oregon's Bralon Addison or Colorado State's Rashard Higgins.

Small and without elite deep speed, Oregon's Addison's calling card is video game-like elusiveness with toughness over the middle. He is a natural slot guy, but in the Patriots' offense he would run a lot of jailbreaks and dig routes, being counted on to make the defender miss in space, which, as mentioned previously, is his biggest strength. He also comes with a fourth round grade.

Higgins is another big receiver who doesn't possess top-end speed, but has terrific feet and is a great route runner, which should appeal to the Patriots as a possession type talent. He has some ball security issues but is supremely confident in his route running and his ability after the catch, but is lacking in explosiveness off the snap and could have difficulty against press corners in the NFL - which is why he comes with a second or third round grade, depending on who you talk to.

Finally, there is Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard, the best Patriots fit of all.

The lone drawback on Shepard is his diminutive size, and what is causing him to be a late second rounder instead of a first - and you find many scouts who wouldn't want him running routes for them out of the slot, where his "whip" route is particularly devastating.

But what may appeal more to Brady and to Patriots' fans in general is his penchant for getting behind his mirror in the pattern:
"Clean with his double moves and if cornerbacks bite, is able to get over the top to track throws and run under them for the big play. Will adjust routes to ball placement. Not afraid over the middle. Born to catch a football." Lance Zierlein,
Emphasis mine, as his ability to adjust on the fly and run under throws that are slightly off-target would give the Patriots the kind of over-under all-purpose receiver that they haven't had in a decade. His separation skills at the top of his routes are without peer in this draft class, the only drawback is the aforementioned size and lack thereof - but that slight, fair or unfair, puts Shepard right in Belichick's wheelhouse at the end of the second round.

Obviously, there are other receivers that bring different skill sets to the field, but the Patriots offense requires a certain type of receiver with brains and an explosive first step to gain immediate separation, as well as run precise routes once off the line - and if they need someone who will contribute immediately, the choices for the Patriots at the end of the second round are somewhat limited...

...with only Shepard - and to a limited extent any other receiver mentioned - ready for immediate contribution, with names like Ohio State's Michael Thomas and Florida's Demarcus Robinson also possibilities if the Patriots are willing to be patient and work them into the lineup gradually...

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