The New England Patriots’ wide receivers struggled in 2019, with only Julian Edelman being able to provide quarterback Tom Brady with a consistent target at the position throughout the year — and even he was slowed down by a multitude of injuries as the season went along, although he did not miss a single game because of them. Entering 2020, Edelman is therefore projected to again play a major in New England’s passing attack.
With the Super Bowl MVP turning 34 years old in May, however, the Patriots might have to start looking for an heir sooner rather than later. A rookie coming in and immediately having a similar impact as one of the most productive pass catchers in franchise history is obviously an unrealistic expectation, but there are some developmental options available in this year’s draft if the team wants to go that route.
One of them is SMU’s James Proche. Let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: James Proche
Position: Wide receiver
School: Southern Methodist
2019 stats: 12 games, 901 defensive snaps; 164 targets, 111 receptions, 1,231 receiving yards, 15 receiving touchdowns; 4 rushing attempts, 18 rushing yards; 17 punt returns, 164 punt return yards; 1 kickoff return, 16 kickoff return yards
Size: 5106, 196 lbs, 30 1/8 arm length, 9 5/8 hand size, 72 wing span
Opening day age: 23
Expected round: 4th-5th
Strengths: Proche brings some outstanding athletic skills to the table that should make him a productive slot receiver at the next level: he has some good short-area quickness and agility, and is able to quickly get into his route out of his pre-snap stance. His speed, meanwhile, is sufficient and allows him to stress defenses deep even though he should not be seen as a true deep threat. His route tree and experience, however, allow him to be used in numerous ways.
His route running and cuts are crisp while he displays a good understanding of pacing and using his smaller frame when going up against man-to-man coverage. The 23-year-old also has shown an ability to work the field horizontally and attack soft spots in zone coverage. He is also a very good and willing blocker in the running game — something the Patriots put a lot of value in at the wide receiver position — and has displayed some terrific hands and concentration when plugging balls out of the air.
Weaknesses: Proche has a smaller frame, which might limit his usage at the next level and make him a rather one-dimensional slot option. It also hurts his ability to contest for jump balls or other throws that are not fully on target even though his hands, as noted above, are generally very good. His size could also pose a problem when being forced to go against press-man coverage at the next level as he has to show that he can be successful when working off a disrupted timing.
Furthermore, Proche’s straight-line speed is not exactly eye-popping — he is more of a horizontal threat than a player capable of threatening the deep portions of the field on a consistent basis.
What would be his role? While he did see more snaps on the outside during the 2019 season, Proche is a slot receiver through and through — and he would fill that role at the next level due to his short-area quickness and ability to successfully find openings against zone coverage.
How many downs can he play? Four, even though his usage on offense would likely be limited to specific packages early on in his career and with Edelman — and possibly Mohamed Sanu and Gunner Olszewski as well — serving as the Patriots’ primary option in the slot. Proche would, however, see regular action in the kicking game.
What is his special teams value? During his four non-redshirt years at SMU, Proche returned 50 punts for an average of 7.6 yards per runback as well as 31 kickoffs for an average of 19.8 yards. If the Patriots do invest a draft pick in him early on day three, he would be inserted into the returnman competition right away given his experience in this area.
Does he have positional versatility? While he will projects to primarily be used as a slot option at the next level, Proche has some experience playing on the perimeter as well: in 2019, he actually saw more action on the outside (474 snaps) than on the interior (423 snaps) and in that sense is reminiscent of Edelman who is more of a Z-receiver in New England than a true slot.
Will his role change from year one to year two? With Edelman not expected to go anywhere in 2020, Proche would serve as a rotational depth option behind him as the Patriots’ primary slot option during his first year in the NFL.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? The Patriots are comparatively crowded when it comes to wide receivers most comfortable playing inside of the formation, even though only one — Edelman — can be considered a roster lock at this point in time. This means that Proche would likely go up against fellow youngsters Gunner Olszewski, Jakobi Meyers and Quincy Adeboyejo for practice reps, playing time and ultimately a roster spot. Olszewski would also project to be his main competition in the returngame.
Why the Patriots? New England needs to get more production out of its wide receiver position but also keep the future in mind: with Edelman turning 34 later this offseason and being expected to undergo surgery on both his shoulder and his knee, a long-term developmental depth option might be comparatively high up on the team’s list of needs. Proche would not be expected to immediately step into Edelman’s role and produce consistently, but he would be another option to develop behind the veteran.
Why not the Patriots? Two factors speak against the Patriots investing in a developmental slot receiver with one of their mid-round draft picks: New England a) is rather deep when it comes to possible slot options, and b) needs to get more out of its wide receiver position in 2020. While Proche would be expected to play a depth role in year one, he should not be counted on to necessarily have a bigger impact than second-year men Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski.
Verdict: Proche certainly is an intriguing option for the Patriots to consider on day three of the draft. He fits what they are looking for in slot receivers and also brings plenty of experience playing that role to the table. While the perimeter and deep parts of the field were bigger issues for New England’s passing game in 2019 than the short-area slot production, having a developmental prospect in the fold behind Edelman could pay dividends in the long run. And given his athletic profile and foundation, he would certainly be an intriguing addition to the Patriots’ offense.