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17 Years of Patriots: Analyzing wide receivers and tight ends under Bill Belichick

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Xs, Zs, Slots, and tight ends!

It’s kind of crazy to think about, but the Patriots ended 2016 with a top five wide receiver corps in the NFL. How many other teams could brag about leaving an ex-top 10 pick with 849 yards and 5 touchdowns on the year as an inactive in the playoffs? The group of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan, and Michael Floyd may be New England’s most talented complement of playmakers ever, and when Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett are taken into consideration Tom Brady looks like a very lucky man indeed. One factor that elevated this group is how much positional diversity these receiving options have, as four of the five pass catchers can play any of the three key positions in New England’s offense. With Floyd and Bennett as UFAs, rumors about Amendola’s contract percolating, and Gronkowski’s injury proneness, the Patriots may be in a position to add some help at these positions in the offseason.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

X-SPLIT END

2000 Terry Glenn/Chris Calloway

2001 Terry Glenn

2002 Deion Branch

2003 Deion Branch

2004 Deion Branch/David Patten

2005 Deion Branch/Tim Dwight

2006 Reche Caldwell/Doug Gabriel

2007 Randy Moss

2008 Randy Moss

2009 Randy Moss

2010 Randy Moss/Brandon Tate

2011 Chad Ochocinco

2012 Brandon Lloyd

2013 Kenbrell Thompkins

2014 Brandon Lafell

2015 Brandon Lafell/Keshawn Martin

2016 Julian Edelman/Malcolm Mitchell

The X receiver in New England’s offense is historically the player most often isolated in 1-on-1 situations. The Patriots have had issues filling this role in the past, with stopgaps taking over ever since Randy Moss left in 2010. Both Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell played this role admirably in 2016, with Mitchell poised to take the role over full-time next year. Should the Patriots decide to keep Michael Floyd, he could provide cover here as well.

The Patriots utilize multiple bread and butter routes here, including the back shoulder curl and the slant, isolating cornerbacks with high percentage routes. Receivers have to be quick footed and able to quickly accelerate from standing stops if they want to succeed as Patriots X receivers. Deion Branch, who epitomized this position for so many years, ran a 6.62 3-cone drill at his Pro Day in 2002; Julian Edelman ran a 6.66 at his. Brandon Lafell and Malcolm Mitchell both ran quick 3 cones, too. This position appears to be in good hands for the time being.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Z-FLANKER

2000 Tony Simmons/Curtis Jackson

2001 David Patten

2002 David Patten

2003 David Givens

2004 David Givens

2005 David Givens

2006 Jabar Gaffney/Chad Jackson

2007 Donte Stallworth/Jabar Gaffney

2008 Jabar Gaffney

2009 Sam Aiken

2010 Deion Branch

2011 Deion Branch

2012 Deion Branch

2013 Aaron Dobson

2014 Danny Amendola

2015 Aaron Dobson/Danny Amendola

2016 Chris Hogan/Malcolm Mitchell/Danny Amendola

The Z receiver for the Patriots is a chain mover for the most part, and runs a greater diversity of routes than the X. Z receivers have play extension responsibilities as well - a majority of Z receiver routes follow the quarterback’s pocket trajectory and serve as his last resort on broken plays. This year, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola played this role for the most part, although both also spent many of time in the slot as well. Hogan’s greatest impact was in the slot, so if Amendola leaves, spending draft capital here makes sense.

New England Patriots vs Tennessee Titans - December 31, 2006 Photo by Joe Murphy/NFLPhotoLibrary

Y-SLOT

2000 Troy Brown/Shockmain Davis

2001 Troy Brown

2002 Troy Brown

2003 Troy Brown

2004 Troy Brown/David Patten

2005 Troy Brown

2006 Troy Brown

2007 Wes Welker

2008 Wes Welker

2009 Wes Welker/Julian Edelman

2010 Wes Welker/Julian Edelman

2011 Wes Welker/Julian Edelman

2012 Wes Welker/Julian Edelman

2013 Julian Edelman/Danny Amendola

2014 Julian Edelman

2015 Julian Edelman

2016 Danny Amendola/Julian Edelman/Chris Hogan/Malcolm Mitchell

Slot receivers have been synonymous with the Patriots for many years. They are the keys that keep New England on schedule, and Julian Edelman is the best slot receiver New England has had since Troy Brown. Edelman is getting older, but he stepped up this year as a route runner and hands-catcher, making some fantastic plays over the course of the season. Even though the slot receiver spot has been a mainstay in New England’s offense, as the torch has been passed over the years this role has changed. Brown was more of a vertical threat, while Welker served almost as a split back, mainly taking screen passes and bulling forward. Now, Patriots slot receivers are running more vertical routes than ever before, especially with Hogan. Edelman may not have too many years left, but I do not expect the Patriots to spend an early draft pick on a slot receiver this year.

NFL: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

TIGHT END (TWO OPTIMAL)

2000 Eric Bjornson/Rod Rutledge

2001 Rod Rutledge

2002 Christian Fauria/Cam Cleeland/Daniel Graham

2003 Daniel Graham/Christian Fauria

2004 Daniel Graham/Christian Fauria

2005 Ben Watson/Daniel Graham/Christian Fauria

2006 Ben Watson/Daniel Graham

2007 Ben Watson/Kyle Brady

2008 Ben Watson/David Thomas

2009 Ben Watson/Chris Baker

2010 Rob Gronkowski/Alge Crumpler

2011 Rob Gronkowski

2012 Rob Gronkowski/Mike Hoomanawanui

2013 Rob Gronkowski/Matthew Mulligan

2014 Rob Gronkowski/Mike Hoomanawanui

2015 Rob Gronkowski/Scott Chandler

2016 Rob Gronkowski/Martellus Bennett/Matt Lengel

Will the Patriots trade Gronk? It’s definitely up for debate. Gronk is one of the best tight ends in the history of the NFL, but he has suffered multiple injuries over the years and he is not the centerpiece of the offense as he was in years past. I do not expect Gronk to be traded, especially given that Bennett may not return this year, but stranger things have happened. Luckily for the Patriots, this is a great year in terms of versatile, well-rounded tight end prospects. They will assuredly look to take at least one, if not two, well-rounded tight ends in this class.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl-North Practice Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

PROSPECT FITS: Tight end and Y receiver are the most pressing needs for the Patriots, although slot guys could also be acquired to add depth and versatility behind Edelman and Hogan. This is a deep group at the tight end position. However, if New England wanted to make a splash, they could do much worse than OJ Howard from Alabama in Round 1. Daniel Graham and Ben Watson were both versatile, well-rounded tight ends that Belichick fell in love with. Howard has better college tape than either and upside through the roof. I could see the Patriots taking Howard as high as 12th overall should they deal Jimmy Garoppolo to the Browns.

In the previous edition of this series, we noted Michael Roberts and Jeremy Sprinkle as H-back options; they could be inline tight ends as well. Jake Butt is a Day 2 talent who will slip due to a torn ACL, and he could end up being a nice find for New England should they be patient with his rehabilitation. His B1G compatriot, George Kittle of Iowa, is a versatile player as well. He could end up being a nice find as a priority free agent.

At wide receiver, I do not expect the Patriots to look for anyone until Round 3 earliest, but Round 4-5 most likely. If they dip a bit earlier, ECU’s Zay Jones and Louisiana Tech’s Carlos Henderson have the versatility and combination of size and quick feet to be prized commodities for New England. Some Day 3 options I really like include Fred Ross from Mississippi State, Darreus Rogers of USC, and Jordan Westerkamp of Nebraska. None of these guys are super athletic, but all have great hands and make contested catches consistently. There’s also always the chance that a 3-cone drill superstar makes a surprise appearance here.

In terms of slot receivers, Ryan Switzer has to be in consideration if New England decides to spend draft capital there. My personal favorite slot receiver in this draft is Curtis Samuel, but I do not expect New England to select him. He’d be fun in Foxboro, though.