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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.