Despite some high-profile departures in free agency, the New England Patriots still have a talented roster in all three phases of the game. Offensively, however, one of the biggest question marks is the pass catching talent at wide receiver and tight end — especially with the retirement of future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski. Naturally, the two spots should be high up on the Patriots’ list of priorities entering the draft.
One player to help address the current shortcomings is South Carolina wideout Deebo Samuel. Let’s take a closer look at a potential second-round pick that might very well be on New England’s radar.
Name: Deebo Samuel
Position: Wide receiver
School: South Carolina
2018 stats: 12 games, 652 snaps, 98 targets, 62 receptions, 4 drops, 882 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns, 592 yards after the catch
Size: 5113, 214 lbs, 10 hand size, 31 3/8 arm length
Combine numbers: 4.48 40-yard dash, 15 bench press reps, 39 vertical jump, 122 broad jump, 7.03 3-cone drill, 4.14 20-yard shuttle
Opening day age: 23
Expected Round: Early 2nd
Strengths: If you are looking for a polished route runner in this year’s draft, look no further than Deebo Samuel. The 23-year-old is terrific in this part of his game, as his short-area quickness and acceleration allow him to run a precise and complete route tree no matter the coverage he faces. He also knows how to sell different patterns to create separation. This in combination with a high football IQ and tremendous play recognition skills could help him build a quick rapport with a quarterback like Tom Brady.
Samuel also is an exceptionally strong player, somewhat in the mold of Julian Edelman: he knows how to fight through tackles and generate yards after the catch. In 2018, for example, he generated 592 of his 882 receiving yards following the reception and his ability to fend off would-be tacklers is a big reason for that — as is his willingness to take a hit: Samuel does not shy away from contact. He also is one of the surest ball carriers to enter the draft this year.
Finally, his versatility is also a major plus. Samuel, who also brings experience in the kicking game to the table, has been used all over the place at South Carolina and projects to be moved around the formation quite a bit in the NFL as well. He has the quickness to effectively work the slot as well as the short and intermediate areas or in the screen game, but also possesses the straight-line speed to occasionally challenge defenses deep.
Weaknesses: While Samuel is well-built for a middle-of-the-field receiver, his injury history can be seen as a red flag. In 2016, he dealt with a hamstring injury before a broken fibula limited him to only three games during his 2017 junior season. While neither injury should be enough to take him off a team’s draft board — too big is his upside — his durability can certainly be classified as a slight concern.
Furthermore, Samuel is not the best run blocker in this year’s receiving class — an integral part of New England’s wide receiver roles. While he is a generally strong and physical player, his technique needs to be worked on. Nothing that can be corrected, but something that was not always up to his otherwise high level of performance in college.
What would be his role? Given his skill set, Samuel looks like he could fill the Z-receiver role in New England’s offensive system: playing off the line of scrimmage and being moved around the formation pre-snap. In that sense, he could turn into a Chris Hogan/Danny Amendola hybrid in New England. Of course, his versatility would allow him to be lined up in numerous spots across the formation — from classical slot receiver to perimeter target.
How many downs can he play? Four, although his offensive usage early on in his career might be more limited to certain packages and situations depending on how the Patriots plan to use their skill position talent.
What is his special teams value? While Samuel stood out as a wide receiver at South Carolina, the Gamecocks also used him as a returnman. In his role a kickoff returner, he ran back 23 kicks for 570 yards (24.8 yards per return) and 1 touchdown. It would not be surprising to see Samuel take over the role previously held by free agency departure Cordarrelle Patterson.
Does he have positional versatility? As noted above, Samuel has the abilities to serve as a Z-receiver in New England that could line up both in the slot and on the perimeter. Due to his relative lack of height, however, he projects to see more snaps in the middle of the field than on the boundary. In 2018, he lined up in the slot on 70 of South Carolina’s snaps and finished with respectable numbers: Samuel caught 27 of his 34 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns.
Will his role change from year 1 to year 2? The sooner Tom Brady develops confidence in the rookie, the sooner his role within New England’s offense will grow. Between years one and two, however, a serious spike should be expected with both Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett scheduled to enter free agency. While at least one of the two (Edelman, unless he retires) will likely be brought back, Samuel could fully take over the role of the other.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? With Julian Edelman penciled in as a starter in New England’s offense, Samuel will likely fight for the second and third wide receiver role. His main competition — at least at this point in time — project to be Phillip Dorsett, who was re-signed by New England as a free agent, and Bruce Ellington. Josh Gordon returning from his indefinite suspension would obviously change the whole picture, though, and bump Samuel down to the third/fourth spot on the depth chart.
Why the Patriots? New England needs more affordable talent at the receiving positions and Samuel would offer just that, especially considering that he brings plenty of the traits to the table that the team likes in its wide receivers: his excellent route-running and football intelligence, positional versatility (even beyond the offense), and ability to create yards after the catch all make him a potential target for the team with one of its early second-round picks.
Why not the Patriots? As intriguing a player as Samuel is, the Patriots already have two experienced options to fill the Z-role in Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett. Edelman is not getting any younger, but New England might opt to wait until next year to address the more pressing need at boundary receiver in 2018. That in combination with Samuel’s injury history could make the team look elsewhere for wide receiver help early on in the draft.
Verdict: Deebo Samuel looks like the prototypical Patriots wide receiver. As such, the club will certainly have him on its radar to invest in the second round. And even though it already has some talent on the roster that virtually play the same role, New England always finds ways to get its best players onto the field — Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett being under contract will therefore likely not shy the team away from investing. If Samuel is available at #56 or in trade-up range, it would not be surprising to see the world champs pull the trigger.