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Pats Prognostication: Wide Receivers

You know the drill by now (hopefully) - guessing where Belichick's going to jump with his roster arrangements for the upcoming 2010 season, based on the current roster, Belichick's recent history with draft picks, free agency, trades, who/what/why players are available now, and which way the wind is blowing at the time of writing. This time: Wide Receivers.

This one's based on a lot of supposition - it's hard to guess what way the Pats will jump when the world at large doesn't know the status of half of the current Pats WR lineup. There are question marks over the health of Wes Welker (is he out for the season? PUP-list bound? Couple of weeks on the pine? Starting from day 1?); Brandon Tate (How good is he? Is he healthy? Where can he contribute?); and Randy Moss (How hurt was he last year? Is he washed up like some commentators say? Is his head still in it?)

Still! I shall do my best, so to dive in, jump over the proverbial...

A lot of this (like my TE discussion last week) goes back to the 2006-2007 changeover from a Weiss-ish system to an evolved McDaniels plan - the shift from a passing attack of big, downfield blocking quick TEs and no-name WRs, to blocking TEs giving Brady time to find the Moss-Welker pair (or guys like Stallworth, Gaffney and Edelman if he couldn't). In other words, it went from a spread-it-around passing offence where no receiver really had a chance of racking up 1000 yards to a passing scheme where Randy and Wes were guaranteed 1000+ yards a season, but not even the TEs were guaranteed of touching the football on a game-by-game basis.

Taking that 2007 offence as a sort of benchmark for the new-style Pats passing game, then, how have the WR ranks been constructed?

Moss and Welker were both 2007 tradees - Welker for a 2nd- and 7th round draft choices, Moss for a 4th. Reche Caldwell (or "the bug-eyed idiot", as one regular contributor calls him; you know who you are) was a carryover from 2006, where he was taken as a late free agent; Caldwell was cut just before the season opener. Jabbar Gaffney was another 2006 carryover, picked up from free agency in October(!) and became a solid #2 and #3 option for Brady over the 2006-2008 period. Donte Stallworth was an early free agent pickup - March 2007 - and became a good deep threat on an incentive-laden contract. Kelley Washington was the other notable pickup for the 2007 season, also signed in March. So from the WRs who were going into training camp in 2007, two were tradees, two were from early free-agency, and two were from post-draft free agency. The tradees were both successful, one of the early free agency guys was genuinely successful, and one of the post-free agency guys was more than useful.

Compare that to the last season (and thus, the starting WR cadre of 2010). You had Moss and Welker, of course, and they were supplimented with early free agent signing Joey Galloway (signed in March) and tradee Greg Lewis (purchased with a 5th rounder in March). They drafted Brandon Tate in the third-round (albeit with a carry-over injury) and ex-college QB Julian Edelman in the 7th round. To round out the roster, the Pats had part-time WR Matthew Slater, part-time WR Sam Aiken, part-time WR Isaiah Stanback in the lower slots. Notice a trend? Besides Galloway and Lewis, it was a bunch of part-timers, injury risks and QB conversions. And unsurprisingly, when both Lewis and Galloway washed out, the remaining guys played like a bunch of part-timers, injury risks and QB conversions.

What went wrong? I personally think Hoodie pulled the trigger on cutting Greg Lewis too early; Galloway should've been first to go. Once he'd shed the veteran WRs, Belichick was stuck - he had to make do with a bunch of part-timers and rookies not entirely suited to starting straight away. It was exacerbated when there were injuries in the LB corps and trenches, because he had to bring in Seau and a special teamer to fill out the roster, meaning WR was neglected.

So what does that mean for 2010? A lot depends on the health of the WR corps. Welker may or may not be injured, but Edelman can fill that role in the short-term. Moss ought to be close enough to Randy Moss to be useful. Tate is an unknown quantity - he showed flashes of talent in his rookie season and has the pedigree to suggest he'll be useful. So that's three, and maybe four slots filled. Aiken is better as a special teamer, as is Slater. Stanback will probably make the team as a backup QB and backup WR, but everyone is probably happier if he doesn't actually have to play. David Patten is around, but seems unlikely to be anything more than veteran backup or a role player at best. In other words, I see two, maybe three slots for WR additions in the 2010 offseason. Add in the fact that the main KR/PR guys are coming off injuries (Welker, Tate), and there's probably a need for at least one and maybe two of those WR additions to also be special teams returners.

Where are the Pats getting these two, maybe three WRs from? Given the history, probably a mix of the draft and post-draft roster cutdown guys. The cutdown guys are impossible to predict: teams draft a brand-spanking new WR they didn't quite expect to fall to them, and realise they suddenly have an overpaid veteran who won't be getting the reps they thought he would be. They cut the vet, who's suddenly available for teams like the Pats to steal (mwahaha). It's how they got guys like Gaffney, so they're not all bad, right?

As for the draft, the Pats have traditionally shied away from using high round picks on WRs. The guys they've taken in the top 3 rounds are all multipurpose threats, which makes them somewhat proof against busts - Deion Branch could return punts and kicks, too; Bethel Johnson was a stud return-man who never found a spot as a WR proper; Chad Jackson had all the physicals you'd hope for, and proven KR/PR skills, so he earned a chance (to blow it due to lack-of-hands and inability to run routes); Brandon Tate is a WR who is also a great returner. In other words, having value above and beyond sheer WR ability is the way to earn a Pats pick.

Bearing that in mind, the guys who strike me as potential Pats players (think: good route running, great hands, intelligence and versatility over sheer size or physical ability) are, as per round:

  • Golden Tate, likely first rounder - proven route running and good hands in a Pro-style route-tree system, would likely fit in pretty well in the Pats offence. Problem being is that alone worth a first-rounder, when there are lower-down guys who may be able to do the same
  • Damian Williams, late 1st-early 2nd - he's of useful size (6'1, 190lbs), and known as an elite route-runner with very good hands. That all sounds rather Jabar Gaffney-ish, which is ideal as that missing #3 WR.
  • Dexter McCluster, late 1st-early 2nd - McCluster's an intriguing prospect; he's a little like Reggie Bush or Percy Harvin in that he's a WR/HB/PR/KR-capable guy. In other words, he seethes value, because he's able to contribute in all offensive facets of the game. The Pats were supposedly in the hunt for Harvin, and this guy is potentially Harvin Mk. II. Also bear in mind that the Pats are short on returners - Welker and Tate are both coming off injuries. Whether McCluster can run the Pats route-tree is debatable, but he definitely provides value irrespective of how quickly he picks up the offence. He might also "save" a draft pick by playing part-time at HB, which is always a consideration.
  • Jacoby Ford, 4th round - a livewire with a 4.28 40 time, albeit a smaller guy at 5/9 and 186lbs. Debatable route-running might be a knock, but he'll definitely contribute in special teams at the very least.
  • Andre Roberts, 4th round - at 5'11" and 195 pounds, he's smallish, but is known for running great routes and having great hands - rather Deion Branch-like. Would likely produce as a low-round option at #3WR.
  • Jordan Shipley, 5th round. He's 5'11" and 193 lbs, and is a proven kick return threat. He 'only' ran a 4.57 40, so that might drop him down a little, but he was being batted around as a potential sleeper before the Combine. Considering the Pats gave up a 5th rounder for Greg Lewis, would Shipley be worth a punt? Perhaps.
  • 6-7th rounders. Those throwaway picks that Belichick often uses on project players on a "what if" basis. Unlikely to make the team, but if they do, they could surprise. Guys down this low that catch the eye include 6'5", 210lb prospect Stephen Williams, who ran a 4.48 40. Can't say much for route-running or hands, but if he can magically find abilities there, he's got size and speed to die for. The second guy to look out for is Robert Wallce, who's a 6'4", 223lb behemoth who can also run the 40 in a handy 4.41 time. Again, dubious hands and route-running, but it's a 7th rounder; so what?

So there's a slightly-longer-than-anticipated breakdown of the options. My thoughts? I think the Pats will go pretty heavy D in the first two, maybe three picks, although if a multi-purpose guy like McCluster is available, he might be worth it. Damien Williams and Golden Tate are options for a second-round pick, too, but it's debatable whether the payoff is there considering the depth in the draft.

I'm personally envisioning a hefty free agent tryout of two or three guys (GLew version 2!), alongside perhaps a second-round rookie (or more likely, a 4th round rookie) and a 6th/7th round guy. Make them battle it out in training camp, and cut the chaff.

Thoughts? Ideas? Disagreements?