Doug Kyed of NESN Sports reports that the Patriots could target a WR early in the draft. Now let's assume that rumor is true. The Patriots have struggled to draft and develop WRs that have stuck since striking gold with Deion Branch and David Givens. 2009 7th round pick Julian Edelman is the only WR since who has developed into an NFL starting caliber receiver. The Patriots tried to get Aaron Dobson to work for them since taking him 59th overall in the 2013 draft. Injuries have prevented Dobson from getting on the field and it's possible the team is already starting to move on. We've seen Bill Belichick himself work out receiver prospects extensively in the draft process, with video footage of him working out Sammie Coates, Chris Conley, Stephon Diggs, and Geremy Davis over the internet. Given the Patriots lack of serviceable depth behind their top 3 WRs and two of them given the injury-prone tag, the Patriots may opt to draft a WR to develop instead of trying to rely on players who they previously tried to develop and failed. Kyed also lists five WR prospects who he believes are the best fits for the Patriots in the draft.
The Patriots passing game focuses on spreading out their opponents and attacking the opponent's weakness. Rob Gronkowski and Edelman are already matchup nightmares for opponents to deal with, as Gronkowski is too good a receiver to get single covered and Edelman can shake off most slot defensive backs and the big and lanky CBs. Brandon LaFell offers a big target who can operate outside and in the slot to overpower smaller defensive backs and get inside position on them. The Patriots also like to operate with a running back in the passing game that matchup extremely well against linebackers in space. James White and Travaris Cadet are the two players that come to mind. White hasn't had many snaps in the NFL, so it's difficult to judge him whereas Cadet has already proven to be a solid pass catching option for Saints before the Patriots signed him away.
We'll start with Devin Smith from Ohio State. Smith is a very good deep threat WR (Drink if you've heard this one before), with the speed to run past defensive backs. For the Patriots, he could start off as a kick returner and a #4 WR who could play against certain matchups. Smith ran 4.42, jumped 10'2", leaped 39", and did a 6.83 3-Cone. Those athletic numbers fit with what the Patriots look for in a WR. I don't believe Smith is the best fit for the Patriots because he's a downfield receiver and the Patriots typically like to attack defenses with quick passes. Smith's route running and blocking need to be improved before he's ready to be a big cog of the Patriots offense. For what his current skill set brings, he's a threat on 1st and 2nd downs but probably isn't a fit for third downs.
Up next is Kansas State's Tyler Lockett, who I consider the best WR fit of this group. Lockett is on the small side at 5'10" 182, but he plays more like Julian Edelman than like Wes Welker. While his size suggests "slot receiver", there are plenty of receivers under 6'0" who were successful outside targets (Antonio Brown, Steve Smith, Deion Branch). That being said, he can also operate out of the slot as well. Lockett brings a good depth option for Edelman, who's playing style will always bring up injury concerns for anyone watching on both the offense and special teams. With a 4.40 40, 6.89 3-cone, and a 4.07 shuttle, Lockett could be a candidate for return duty as both a kick returner and a punt returner who can spell Edelman at the punt return spot every now and then. If you're into football sabremetrics, Lockett had a 3.64 yards gained per route run last year at Kansas State, which was good for third amongst all college WRs Pro Football Focus charted. In terms of readiness, once he figures out the Patriots' playbook he'd be more than a capable replacement for Danny Amendola.
Third is Georgia's Chris Conley. This guy is an athletic freak and is also a very dedicated player. The guy won a lot of offseason awards at Georgia and plus is pretty decent at making Star Wars style films. Back to the gridiron, Conley projects as a downfield target for the team and his route running could use a lot of refinement as well. His speed at the minimum can be used on special teams (think Slater) as a returner, gunner, or a vice. Conley's scouting reports question his ability to catch the ball in traffic. His speed and explosion numbers are off the charts, but his agility scores seem less than ideal with a 4.3 shuttle and a 7.06 3-cone. That would suggest he is more of a vertical receiver who does his damage 15+ yds downfield and primarily stay on the outside since he can't shake defensive backs horizontally. Conley probably won't be a big piece of the offense for at least 2 years, but the upside as a pass catcher is almost up there with the guys who will likely be taken in the first round.
Stephon Diggs is another guy who can be an inside/outside guy. Diggs was a team captain while at Maryland and presents a threat all over the field and in the return game. While not as explosive an athletic talent as the other receiver prospects at the combine with a sub 10' broad jump, he has plenty to offer for the Patriots offense. At the Maryland Pro Day, Belichick was seen extensively working him out as the same for Chris Conley and Geremy Davis at their respective Pro Days. Diggs isn't on any of my draft boards from rounds 1-4, but I would not be surprised if Belichick used one of his top 6 picks on Diggs with the intent to develop him as the receiver that 2013 4th round pick Josh Boyce never became.
Finally, Geremy Davis already has the New England connection as a University of Connecticut football player. As a receiver, he doesn't offer as much upside as the rest of the group, which is why I have him lower than the other three. He ran 4.47 at his Pro Day (a bit deceptive) to go with a 6.86 3-Cone, 4.18 shuttle, 10'4" Broad Jump, and 36" vertical. Davis is a solid route runner with good hands (0 drops in the 2014 college season) and can box out smaller defensive backs with his 6'2" 216 pound frame. He probably will never end up as a #1 WR for the Patriots, but he could develop into a nice possession receiver on the outside who can get yards after the catch (think LaFell).
Of the five receivers listed, Diggs and Lockett are Julian Edelman types who are major threats with the ball in their hands. Both are viable return men and are a threats on end-arounds, jet sweeps, and attacking defenses horizontally. Smith and Conley are vertical threats who don't possess the agility that Diggs or Lockett has, but can separate downfield from most defensive backs by just outrunning them. Out of the two Smith has more potential as a receiver and Conley has more potential on special teams. Geremy Davis strikes me as a Brandon LaFell type, a big-bodied receiver who can operate on the outside and in the slot to create matchup problems for the opposing team. In terms of best fits for the team, I'd go Lockett, Davis, Diggs, Smith, then Conley.
WR is definitely a need for the draft for the Patriots considering that Danny Amendola is likely a cap casualty next season with a projected cap number north of $7M. As or If the Patriots do draft a WR in the 2nd or 3rd round of the draft, it could spell the end of Dobson's career in New England. My roster projections typically only have the Patriots carrying 4 WR if you don't count Slater. Edelman, LaFell, and Amendola are locks for the top 3 spots. A rookie WR taken early would occupy a 4th spot on the roster, which means Dobson would be on the outside looking in and would have to really produce in camp for the Patriots to justify taking a roster spot from another position to keep him. There is also Boyce and free agent signee Brandon Gibson in the mix for the 4th roster spot, but I don't see either one of those two developing into a future option for the Patriots. Boyce or Dobson could always surprise this camp, but it's hard to bank on that. We'll see if the hoopla about Belichick working out receivers has any substance when the team is on the clock April 30th.