The year is 2010 and the Patriots are just coming off a 10-6 season. The Patriots had Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker at tight end, with Watson a pending free agent in the off-season. Still, the position is nothing special and there is definite room for improvement.
Chris Baker is released. Ben Watson signs with the Browns.
The Patriots have no one from the prior year at tight end, but manage to sign "end of his career" Alge Crumpler to a short term contract, as he's a known locker-room player with a proven track record as a power blocker in the run game.
Enter the draft. The Patriots select this broken-back Rob Gronkowski character from Arizona and this "put the pot down" Aaron Hernandez cat from Florida. Both drafted below their expected value of the field, if it had not been for their red flags.
Three years later and both of those drafted tight ends are locked up with long terms deals and the Patriots are considered as having revolutionized the position.
So the Patriots started flipping their wide receivers, with Wes Welker being exchanged for Danny Amendola, Brandon Lloyd switching for Donald Jones (and still with a chance that he signs back with the team), and Michael Jenkins proving veteran depth at the position, although he's probably a camp body.
Fact is, there are no wide receivers on the roster who caught a pass from Tom Brady during the 2012 season. Matthew Slater is the only one with a reception from Brady in his career and it was one catch in 2011. The other three returning players, Andre Holmes, Jeremy Ebert, and Kamar Aiken, were primarily practice squad players in 2012. Those guys can be viewed as camp bodies with nothing guaranteed.
Amendola will have a roster spot. I believe that Jones will be receiver three or four. Jenkins is not guaranteed. The Patriots need help.
Lucky for the franchise, this is a great draft to need a top flight wide receive, with plenty of big body players. I think this could be the best receiver draft since 2009, with Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, and Hakeem Nicks headlining the seven receivers drafted in the first 40 picks.
There are no big ticket players- no A.J. Green or Julio Jones, heck, not even a Justin Blackmon or a Crabtree- but there is plenty of late-first/early-second round talent that is prime for the Patriots to pluck.
There are two players that are expected to go in the top 20 picks of the first round, so we'll skim over them as the Patriots aren't in position to make a move up to take either.
First is Cordarrelle Patterson, a 6-2, 215 lbs receiver from Tennessee. He is a fluid route runner with sure hands and is able to make plays all over the field. He has blazing speed and explosion off the snap and is valuable in returns on special teams- and he scored a touchdown receiving, rushing, kick returning, and punt returning last season. If he falls out of the top 15, it would be a surprise as his potential is great. That said, he posted only 778 receiving yards on 48 receptions last year, so if college production is important to your view of a player's polish, you'll find Patterson a little lacking.
Second is Tavon Austin, a 5-9, 175 lbs receiver from West Virginia. He may be small in stature, but he has proven on-field production (two consecutive seasons of 1,000+ receiving yards, posted 1,932 yards from scrimmage last season) and has tremendous polish. He blazed a sub-4.3 40 and provides value at all depths of the field. If any player was to be the next Percy Harvin, it'd be Austin. That said, his lack of height is something that has to be a knock on his stock and prevents him from being a surefire top 10 pick. He should be taken in the top 20.
So a point of note: 21 receivers have been drafted in the top 40 in the past five drafts. 16 of those players were taller than six feet and heavier than 200 lbs- size that can take a beating and size that can impose their will on the defense. Three of those players were either shorter than six feet or lighter than 200 lbs, but not both. Those players pushed the boundaries, but were close enough to the expected elite size of a number one receiver.
Two players were shorter than six feet and lighter than 200 lbs- the Seahawks' Percy Harvin and the Titans' Kendall Wright. Both are absurd athletes and are players with footsteps that Austin will most likely follow.
Let's instead look at the prospects that the Patriots have a chance of drafting- and you'll find that the prospects are still great. Nine of the next ten prospects who are regarded as top two round players meet the six+ foot and 200+ lbs minimum, and we all know that the Patriots are trying to add size at the position. Here's my list of the next five prospects that could fit with the Patriots.
1. Keenan Allen, California: 6'2, 205 lbs, 4.53 40. Allen used to be a top 15 prospect until he injured himself in the middle of the season. He's versatile and can play all sides of the field and is fearless across the middle. He has a knack for accumulating YAC, and he runs all routes. He rounds off some of his hitches, but that could be due to his poor quarterback play. He's quality at all of his other routes and can find soft places in zone defense. He can get off of press and he uses his size well. If he passes his medical clearance, he could be a steal. He's a candidate to be drafted by the Vikings in the early 20s, so if he's still around when the Patriots draft, they'll be extremely lucky.
2. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson: 6'1, 215 lbs, 4.51 40. Hopkins has been drafted to the Patriots in many a mock and he has a lot to offer. He's improved every single year at Clemson and exploded last season for 82 receptions, 1405 yards, and a disgusting 18 touchdowns. He's not the most explosive player off the snap, but he has good hands and does a great job of adjusting to the ball and helping his quarterback. He prefers to be on the outside and has great football speed, but appears a little tentative when asked to go across the field. He's a good route runner who can get off of press coverage and is able to use his body to generate separation down the field. He's not as strong of an athlete in shorts as the other prospects, but his play on the field speaks for itself.
3. Justin Hunter, Tennessee: 6'4, 200 lbs, 4.36 40. Hunter is the counterpart to top prospect Patterson and could have even more upside. While he can definitely afford to add on more weight, his combine stats match those of freak Julio Jones. Of course, his three cone drill wasn't spectacular at 7.19 (you would hope for sub-7), but he beat out Patterson. Hunter knows how to use his size to beat out defenders and has no issues going across the middle of the field or crossing patterns- but don't expect him to take the beating that Welker took on a daily basis. He's fluid in his breaks on routes and is a strong player on the outside. His speed doesn't necessarily translate him into a burner, but he's fast enough to make plays at all levels of the field.
4. Robert Woods, USC: 6'1, 200 lbs, 4.41 40. Woods played second fiddle to future top 10 (5?) pick Marqise Lee, but he still put together a very solid season. A season after collecting 111 receptions for 1292 yards and 15 touchdowns, Woods dropped down to 76 for 846 yards and 11 TDs. His junior season definitely didn't help his stock, but his sophomore year shows the potential Woods has to be a playmaker. He has great hands and runs extremely fluid routes with a great ability to gain separation down the field. There are some concerns about his long term health (he underwent ankle surgery December 2011) and he doesn't have the most imposing of frames as he struggles to face press coverage, but he could be the most polished receiver this side of Tavon Austin.
5. Markus Wheaton, Oregon State: 5'11, 190 lbs, 4.40 40. If Austin didn't exist, Wheaton would be stealing the hearts of more draftniks. Wheaton is Oregon State's all time leader in receptions and has shown consistent improvement each season. While his size isn't fantastic, it's big enough to get the job down. He's sparkled during the post-season and was considered one of the biggest winners with a great Senior Bowl performance. He can run all the routes, and he can run them well. He produced against all teams, no matter the level of competition. He's an active blocker and loves getting his nose dirty. He can play inside, outside, but he doesn't do special teams. He put together a great combine, showing his explosion (10' broad jump) and agility (6.8s three come). Wheaton is a name to look out for.
Those are my top five prospects for the late first/early second and there are plenty of other players worth researching.
Ryan Swope (Texas A&M), Quinton Patton (Lousiana Tech), Da'Rick Rogers (Tennessee Tech), Terrance Williams (Baylor), and Aaron Dobson (Marshall) are all prospects that could be selected by the end of the second round and there is more talent beyond those names.
Jasper Collins from Mount Union could be a sleeper stud, while Stedman Bailey of West Virginia could also be a contributor.
Based upon the Patriots reported pre-draft prospects, it seems the team is looking for two different players:
1) They're interested in a stud outside receiver from an early round (Hopkins, Woods, Patterson, Patton).
2) They're interested in a versatile receiver from the middle rounds (~6'0, 200 lbs, able to play inside an outside). Think of Julian Edelman's role- or a player who could back up Amendola (Swope, Bailey, Stills).
3) They're looking at big (6'2+, 210+) receivers that will be UDFAs and who can be invited to camp.
Anyway you cut it, and Erik Frenz put to perfectly, they're hunting for players that "have the size the Patriots have lacked."
In my opinion, I think the Patriots would do well to trade down from the end of the first to the early part of the second (still top 40). Teams will likely be jockeying for a quarterbacks as no quarterback beyond Geno Smith is worth a top 15 pick. That means that all the QB needy teams that didn't take a quarterback in the top 10 will have a chance to grab a quarterback at a more reasonable price in the second- but if they all have that plan, then the Patriots can take advantage as teams will vie for their draft spot.
If the Patriots can pick up another mid round pick, while dropping to the next round, there should be plenty of players who can fit needs. Receivers like Hunter, Patton, and Wheaton, and maybe even Woods, might find their way out of the first round and the Patriots could gain additional ammo in the draft, while still getting a top flight threat.
In the middle rounds, they should look to players like Bailey or Stills if they are unable to sign back Edelman and then the position will be solidified on the roster.
Imagine: Amendola, rookies Hunter and Bailey, Jones, Jenkins. That's a core of five that, along with Gronkowski and Hernandez, provide an entirely revamped Patriots offense. They have speed and size that the team didn't have last season.
Last year, the Patriots fielded four wide receivers who saw 3 or more targets. Welker (5'9), Deion Branch (5'9), Julian Edelman (5'10), and Brandon Lloyd (6'0). In the projected group of five, only Bailey (5'10) and Amendola (5'11) don't break the six foot barrier.
The Patriots need to get imposing on the outside if they wish to start dominating in the playoffs and against physical defenses. This is the perfect off-season to address the issue.