The New England Patriots have been open in their interest in improving their receiver corps for 2017, highlighted by the blockbuster acquisition of former New Orleans Saints WR Brandin Cooks and former Indianapolis Colts TE Dwayne Allen. The team now boasts Cooks, Allen, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, and Danny Amendola at receiver- and that doesn’t account for receiving backs like James White, Dion Lewis, and the newly-signed Rex Burkhead.
And the Patriots aren’t done and the focus is on Amendola.
New England is actively scouting potential slot receivers with the hopes of selecting one at an affordable pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Patriots were targeting WR Sterling Shepard in the 2016 NFL Draft, but he ultimately went to the New York Giants at 40th overall and the Patriots subsequently restructured with Amendola in the week following the draft.
The Patriots currently don’t have a first or second round pick (they first pick 72nd overall), but they don’t need an early pick to find a receiver that contribute, as evidenced by fourth-round rookie Super Bowl sensation Malcolm Mitchell.
Interestingly enough, the Patriots aren’t looking for their standard undersized slot receiver in the mold of Wes Welker (5’9), Julian Edelman (5’10), and Amendola (5’10). They’ve been scouting receivers that stand around 6-feet or even taller with the same level of quickness as their smaller counterparts, even if it comes at the expense of deep ball speed.
Here are some of the prospects that have caught the Patriots attention, including stats from Pro Football Focus’ Draft Book that includes data for where players aligned on the field and how they produced from those locations.
Alabama WR ArDarius Stewart (5’11, 205): Stewart spent 22.2% of his time in the slot and his 3.56 yards per route run (YPRR) in the slot ranks the 2nd best of any player with 20+% time in the slot. His drop rate of 15.4% ranks 9th worst out of 81 qualifying players, but his catch rate of 78.6% ranks 6th- so he either catches the ball or he drops it.
Other players like Eastern Washington WR Cooper Kupp, East Carolina WR Zay Jones, Louisiana Tech WR Carlos Henderson, and Western Kentucky WR Taywan Taylor are star prospects with experience in the slot, but they have not yet been connected to the Patriots in the draft process.
Clemson WR Artavis Scott (5’10, 195): Scott spent 35.8% of his time in the slot and his 1.54 YPRR ranks 52nd. Scott ranks 7th in catch rate at 78.0%, one spot behind Stewart.
South Florida WR Rodney Adams (6’1, 190): Adams is the best athlete of these slot receivers with a 4.44s 40 yard dash, 4.28s shuttle, and 6.98s three cone, and an explosive 10’4 broad jump. His 2.65 YPRR ranks 15th and his drop rate (2 drops on 75 targets) ranks 19th.
Day three is when the shorter slot receivers like North Carolina WR Ryan Switzer, Georgia WR Isaiah McKenzie, and Louisiana Tech WR Trent Taylor come off the board. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots used one of their sixth or seventh round picks on the best slot receiver still on the board, should one of the players listed fall, just like how Western Michigan WR Daniel Braverman fell from his fourth round draft projection into the seventh round in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Wyoming WR Tanner Gentry (6’1, 210): Gentry spent 42.9% of his snaps in the slot and still gained 3.49 YPRR, the third best mark for draft prospects. Gentry also showed great hands, dropping a single of his 55 targets, ranking 12th. Gentry put together unimpressive quickness numbers at his pro day (7.29s three cone, 4.43s shuttle).
Arkansas WR Drew Morgan (6’0, 190): Morgan is incredibly quick, with a 1.53s 10 yard split, 4.02s shuttle, and 6.63s three cone at his pro day. While Morgan lacks breakaway speed, his numbers are pretty close to Julian Edelman’s Pro Day results (1.52s/3.92s/6.62s). Morgan didn’t drop any of his 36 slot targets.
Connecticut WR Noel Thomas (6’0, 205): Thomas was one of seven prospects to field 100+ targets in the slot and he gained 2.28 YPRR (24th of 81).
Mississippi State WR Fred Ross (6’1, 215): Ross spent 52.7% of his time in the slot and his 2.14 YPRR ranked 29th.
Old Dominion WR Zach Pascal (6’2, 220): Pascal played 49.1% of his snaps in the slot and recorded 2.53 YPRR (19th). He dropped just one of his 43 targets.
Northwestern WR Austin Carr (6’0, 200): Carr spent a ridiculous 97.7% of his snaps in the slot and fielded 129 targets (3rd). He managed to convert those opportunities into 2.91 YPRR (9th). Carr owns an impressive 6.70s three cone and 4.07s shuttle time.
There are a ton of slot prospects that have been connected to the Patriots and there are more (Tulsa WR Keevan Lucas, for one), that are on the Patriots radar, but fall shorter than 6-feet.
Keep in mind that the Patriots don’t have to replace Amendola immediately; the slot receiver’s Super Bowl heroics are fresh in minds and his ability to step up in the clutch has not gone unnoticed. The Patriots would be happy to retain Amendola on a reduced contract, but they’re also always looking towards the future.
A player like Stewart or Taylor would immediately supplant Amendola in the lineup, but a late-round or undrafted prospect would likely be considered a practice squad stash with the intention of replacing Amendola in 2018.
The Patriots have the luxury of time and aren’t forced to make a move due to a roster hole- but the wheels are in motion for a succession plan to Amendola’s reign over the slot.