The New England Patriots paid a premium in free agency to add talent to their receiving corps, committing at least $60 million in guarantees at the tight end and wide receiver positions. The team doesn’t have a dire need at the receiver position heading into the draft, but the opportunity to select and develop a young prospect behind those guys still exists.
2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry hasn’t done anything to earn a starting role in the offense and Jakobi Meyers is a solid depth option that doesn’t elevate the ceiling of the offense.
While the need to develop a receiver isn’t especially high after free agency, the Patriots won’t necessarily pass up the position for the right player. One receiver who is worth a first-round investment comes from LSU and was one of the top red zone threats in college football the past two seasons.
Name: Terrace Marshall Jr.
Position: Boundary wide receiver
School: LSU (Junior)
Size: 6’3”, 200
2020 Stats: 7 games, 48 receptions, 731 yards, 10 TD
Expected Round: Mid-to-late 1st
Strengths: Marshall is a big-bodied target who is good at boxing out smaller defensive backs at the catch due to his long arms and big frame to win contested catch situations. He’s also capable of adjusting to passes thrown slightly off-target.
He also is a run-after-the-catch threat with good speed — he will probably run a mid 4.4 40-yard dash at his pro day — although not good enough to run away from the best DBs in the NFL. He navigates through traffic very well in those situations and reads his blocks to maximize the amount of yards he can pick up on quick screen plays.
Marshall ran the full route tree from both the boundary and the slot in LSU’s pro style offense, so he will have a smaller learning curve than most NFL receiver prospects. That bodes well for getting some production out of him in his rookie year. Looking at his frame, there is room to add some weight without sacrificing speed and athleticism.
Weaknesses: For his size, Marshall has been a very inconsistent blocker on run plays and designed screens to his side of the field. That can be fixed with coaching, though. His talent as a receiver is worth gambling on and he has the potential to be a physical run blocker on outside runs when he adds a bit more weight.
Marshall will occasionally drop passes due to him trying to run before securing the ball when he has a wide-open field, but that’s something that can also be fixed rather easily.
The biggest concern is how he will adjust to faster defensive backs and press-man coverage at the NFL level. That is something that probably will not be answered until he is actually on the field and whatever issues he has against press can be solved with more refined technique on his releases.
Why the Patriots should draft him: The Patriots should not just stop at adding two tight ends and two wide receivers in free agency, they should try to go all the way to improve their pass catching group by adding a difference maker through the draft. With Julian Edelman in the last year of his contract, along with Harry being ineffective and Meyers being a solid but not irreplaceable piece, Marshall gives the Patriots a development X-receiver with up to five years of team control. He could eventually take over as the team’s number one receiver after Nelson Agholor’s and Edelman’s careers in New England come to an end.
Why the Patriots might not draft him: The Patriots may elect to see if Kendrick Bourne can produce in his envisioned role first before deciding to draft another X-receiver prospect. Given that the team will likely run a lot of 12 personnel when the offense is healthy, drafting a wideout may not be the best return on investment in terms of a first-round selection and more pressing needs elsewhere.
The lack of special teams fit also limits his options on the roster, whereas the team could get more return on investment on a receiver who could double up on kick or punt return duties.
Projected 2021 role: Marshall would open the year as the third or fourth wide receiver on the team’s wide receiver depth chart behind free agent signings Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and possibly Julian Edelman as well. The Patriots can substitute him in their red zone packages and rotate him at both the X and slot spots to create favorable matchups. If an opposing team has an issue defending jump balls, then he will be more effective than Agholor in the low red area.
Who does he have to beat out: While his draft status will secure his spot on the roster, he will be competing with everyone for snaps. The primary competition for the fourth receiver role will be Harry and Meyers, with this pick likely the team admitting they blew it on Harry two years ago. Gunner Olszewski could take on the backup slot/return man role in the receiver room, biding his time until Edelman is out of his way.
2022 and beyond role: The idea is to be able to create matchups on the outside and in the slot that are favorable. While the team will have Marshall, Bourne, and the two tight ends who spend some time in the slot they can attack the weakness of the opposing secondary.
Marshall will be running more vertical routes from the slot and the boundary as the Patriots utilize his size and high-pointing abilities against smaller corners. He will also be the team’s primary red zone threat outside the numbers as they try to utilize him and their tight ends to score from inside the 20.
Verdict: Marshall would be a luxury pick for the Patriots with the intent to create an offense very difficult to slow down given the amount of weapons it would have. He will be a depth option as a rookie with limited special teams fit, but Marshall can move around the formation and play X, Z, or slot which in turn allows the Patriots to attack weaknesses in the opposing defense.
His size, route running, and ball skills make him a tough cover in the red zone and in the deep middle parts of the field. While he isn’t a home run threat, he is going to be a dependable number one receiver in the right offense.