When the New England Patriots traded wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams, the team not only lost its most effective player at the position from a year ago, it also moved on from a lot of draft-pedigree. After all, Cooks was the 20th overall selection in the 2014 NFL draft and as the fourth wideout off the board one of the most highly-coveted wide receivers to join the league that year.
22 spots after Cooks was drafted by the New Orleans Saints, another productive college wideout was taken – the seventh of eight players at his position to be selected within the first 50 picks of that year's draft: Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, who the Philadelphia Eagles brought in with the 42nd overall choice. But despite six other receivers already off the board when Matthews' name was called, his talent was almost equally impressive
Matthews brought a unique blend of size, athleticism and past production to the table: Measured at 6'3, 212 lbs at the combine, the then-21-year old ran a 4.46 40-yard dash followed by a 6.95 three-cone drill. All this on top of a record-breaking collegiate career at Vanderbilt: In his four seasons with the Commodores, Matthews became the SEC's all-time leader in career receptions (262) and receiving yards (3,759).
Matthews' productivity continued at the next level as he averaged 75 catches, 891 receiving yards and six touchdowns per year in his three seasons with the Eagles. But when Philadelphia opted to use Matthews as capital to acquire Buffalo Bills cornerback Ronald Darby via trade in August 2017, his development hit a road block: Due to injuries, he appeared in only 10 games and finished the season with 25 catches for 282 yards and one score.
The Bills, who ranked 31st in passing attempts and aerial yardage gained in 2017, decided not to bring Matthews back after the statistically worst season of his four-year pro career. A month after hitting the open market, therefore, the way was paved for the Patriots to bring the now-25-year old on board and make him just the latest once highly-drafted wide receiver to join their roster.
While the top of the position group is occupied by two players who entered the NFL either late in the draft (Julian Edelman, seventh round) or went undrafted altogether (Chris Hogan), the depth includes some highly-coveted players coming out of college. Even with Cooks about to catch passes in Los Angeles, the Patriots still have three more former first-round wide receivers under contract.
Kenny Britt, who the Patriots brought aboard as a free agent last December, entered the NFL as the 30th overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Cordarrelle Patterson, for whom New England traded earlier this offseason, entered the NFL as the 29th overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Phillip Dorsett, who was acquired via trade last September, entered the NFL as the 29th overall pick of the 2015 draft.
Matthews now joins the trio as former high-round draft choices to find their way to Foxboro. But as is the case with all three of his colleagues, the Vanderbilt product's journey also is a unique one: Like Britt, Matthews had some productive seasons in the past. But just like Patterson and Dorsett, he also had to play alongside some sub-par quarterbacks and caught passes from the likes of Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford and Tyrod Taylor over his career.
One thing that unites him with the three first-rounders, though, is the upside and talent that was attached to his name during the pre-draft process – talent that still exists but needs to be harnessed. The Patriots, unlike any other team in the NFL, have shown an ability to do just that when it comes to players brought aboard. And if the same were to happen with Matthews, New England might have just added a vital but cheap piece of its 2018 offense.