Last year, the New England Patriots selected Arizona State wide receiver N’Keal Harry in the first round with the hopes that he’ll develop into their X-receiver. Harry struggled to get on the same page with Tom Brady, but he showed flashes of brilliance once he had the ball in his hands. With Julian Edelman hitting 34 years of age and on the last year of his contract, the Patriots should be looking for a long-term replacement to pair up with Harry. Perhaps the answer can be found from the same program that produced Harry.
Name: Brandon Aiyuk [Eye-yook]
Position: Wide receiver
School: Arizona State (Senior), formerly from Sierra Nevada JC as freshman and sophomore
Week 1 Age: 22
2019 Stats: 65 catches, 1192 yards, 8 TD; 1 carry, 6 yards; 14 punt returns, 226 yards (18.3 average), 1 TD; 14 kick returns, 446 yards (31.9 average)
Size: 6’0” 205, 9 3/4” hands, 33 1/2” arms
Expected Round: Early 2nd Round. Aiyuk recently had surgery to address a core muscle issue that isn’t expected to affect his ability for training camp, but could cause him to slide a bit in the draft although I don’t expect him to be available before
Strengths: Aiyuk is electric with the ball in his hands thanks to quick acceleration and a strong burst. His large arms, relatively big hands, and being a natural hands catcher gives him a solid catch radius for projected starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham to work with. His route running isn’t as polished, which will take time and repetitions to perfect, but he’s sudden enough out of breaks to create separation at the top of the route. After Harry was drafted by the Patriots, Aiyuk had a monster year as his replacement as the stats above show. His run-after-catch ability also makes him a candidate as a return man, both on kickoffs and punts, which only serves to enhance his value. In his senior year, Aiyuk was one of the best return men in college with solid kickoff and punt return numbers. Aiyuk had five games of topping at least 120 receiving yards, with three of them going for over 160.
Weaknesses: The biggest issue is the lack of polish, with only one year of being a main receiving threat. He made the most of his opportunity, so it’s not too much of a knock. Aiyuk will need to learn how to beat aggressive press coverage and how to be physical on routes without drawing a flag. For the most part, the issues are fixable with good coaching while you work with the athletic gifts he has.
Who does he have to beat out? Aiyuk’s likely draft range will make him a lock to make the roster, but he will be competing for roles. At the punt returner position, he has to battle Gunner Olszewski. Olszewski showed promise as a return man in both the preseason and the first half of the regular season, but unless he can make an impact as a receiver it’s unlikely he can beat out someone with more receiving upside. At the receiver position, he’s battling Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd out for the #4 role. I think Meyers has the inside track to getting that role based on what he showed last year.
Potential 2020 Role: Aiyuk will likely be deployed as a punt returner and the 4th/5th receiver on the depth chart. It’s possible the Patriots keep Byrd and Meyers, but I see that as unlikely if they take Aiyuk in the second round. While Aiyuk is waiting for opportunities to contribute on offense, he can be deployed as a return man on both kickoffs and punts. Most of his damage in 2020 will come in situations where he doesn’t have to catch the ball, but I could see him getting about 35 targets and 20 catches as a rookie.
Long Term Role: With the team developing Harry for the X-receiver role, Aiyuk will be a candidate for the Z-role once Edelman’s tenure with New England reaches its end. At the Z, Aiyuk will be moving around the formation, both as a motion player and lining up around the formation. His run after catch skills make him a candidate for catch-and-run opportunities on quick-hitting screens and routes towards the middle of the field. In addition I could see him getting opportunities to run with the ball on end-arounds and reverses to attack the perimeter of the defense.
How many downs can be contribute? All four, as a starting Z-receiver and as a punt returner. Bill Belichick doesn’t use the same guy often to return kicks and punts, so Aiyuk is more likely to get opportunities with the ball as a punt returner.
Why the Patriots? The Patriots are likely looking for young pass catchers to develop with James White and Julian Edelman both in the final years of their respective contracts. Aiyuk gives the Patriots someone who can impact the game as a return man and a ball carrier as he learns the route tree. The potential four-down impact from the receiver position has to be enticing for the Patriots, especially if they can get at least one pick into the second round.
Why not the Patriots? It may be that they want to use their higher draft picks to add young talent to another position. Before drafting Harry last year, the Patriots had not used their top draft selection on a receiver. It might not make sense to add another receiver this high in the draft whereas taking a lineman on either side of the ball may make more sense from roster building. However, the four-down impact that Aiyuk can offer will make this a tough decision for Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio, and the rest of the scouting department to make.
Verdict: The Patriots will need to continue to build their receiving corps as the group continues to age and needs to be replaced. I also believe it would be a good idea to give Stidham young receivers to grow with as a quarterback. Tom Brady had Deion Branch and David Givens to work with in 2002-05, so I believe Harry and Aiyuk could be that one-two punch at the receiver position for Stidham to win with. Aiyuk’s ability to impact the game in multiple ways, not just as a pass catcher, will put him on the field early while he learns the finer points of route running at the NFL level. If the Patriots can secure a trade down from 23, I think Aiyuk could be high on the Patriots’ radar at the receiver position.
Fun Fact: Aiyuk is from the same high school that produced former Patriot Kyle Van Noy, McQueen High School in Reno, NV.