Over the years the New England Patriots have not had particular success selecting wide receivers in the second and third rounds of the NFL draft. While Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch is an obvious exception, players such as Chad Jackson, Bethel Johnson and Aaron Dobson went down as some of the biggest draft busts in team history.
Despite those misses, the Patriots should take a serious look at receivers again come the second day of the draft later this month.
For one, New England still has a need for more playmaking ability and developmental upside at the position despite bringing Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne on board via free agency. This year’s tier-two wide receiver group also features some impressive talent including, among others, Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC), D’Wayne Eskridge (Western Michigan), and Amari Rodgers (Clemson).
The team also could get some tremendous value out of a Day Two selection compared to those wide receivers who might be available in the first round. While LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, and, to a lesser degree, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman are all tremendous talents, past precedent has shown that teams should not be afraid of waiting until the second round to address their needs at the wide receiver position.
When taking a look at receivers drafted in the era of the rookie wage scale, which was introduced as part of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, it can be seen that there is not that significant a drop-off in productivity between the first and second rounds in particular.
Judging players on a hit-or-miss scale can be difficult, because a lot of the results are formed by personal preference and opinion. One useful way to compare players, though, is by referring to statistics such as Approximate Value (AV) created by Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen. In its essence, AV compares players based on their contributions to a team from a numerical perspective — be it games, statistics or individual accolades.
Using Approximate Value we can see that the first round still reigns supreme but that second-round picks are of comparative value, especially considering the minor investments needed to bring them on board. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the average AV per year created by wide receivers drafted in the first, second and subsequent rounds between 2011 and 2017:
As can be seen, first-round wide receivers create a higher average value score compared to their brethren. This has to be expected, though, given that those players came off the board in the first round for a reason — be it college production, athletics skills, or other factors. First-round wide receivers generally perform better and on a more consistent level than those selected in the later rounds.
However, the drop-off between the first and second rounds is not as significant as one might believe.
Whereas first-round receivers between 2011 and 2017 — i.e. those not bound to play on rookie contracts during the 2021 season — registered an average approximate value score of 4.10, second-round receivers averaged a score of 3.61. The drop-off is more noticeable after the second round, with third-rounders averaging 2.47, fourth-rounders 0.98, fifth-rounders 1.7, sixth-rounders 0.46 and seventh-round receivers 0.32.
Given what was invested in each of those players in terms of draft picks, one could make the argument that second-round receivers actually turn out to be more valuably than their first-round counterparts.
Measuring value relative to production is a tricky undertaking, though. AV, as Drinen himself wrote in an explanatory blog post about creating the metric, is “not meant to be a be-all end-all metric.” Nonetheless, it is a way to compare players to one another and get at least some level of understanding in combination with the draft value used to select them.
If we add Rich Hill’s trade value chart to the equation we can find out that relative to their draft spots, receivers picked in the second and third rounds tend to create a better return on investment. The method is not perfect, but if we compare Approximate Value gained per year to how much each pick used to select wide receivers on Days One and Two is worth, we can see where value can be found in the draft.
An example: Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin joined the league as the 84th overall pick in the 2017 draft, a selection worth 51.29 points on the Rich Hill chart. Over the first four years of his career, he gained an AV of 6.5 per season. First-rounder John Ross, meanwhile, gained an AV of just 1.25 per year despite the Cincinnati Bengals investing the ninth overall pick worth 387.01 points in him.
There is no doubt that Godwin was the more valuable pick, and relative to the draft capital used one of the most valuable selections of the 2017 draft.
Comparing draft capital to Approximate Value over the seven-year range outlined above we get a Value Coefficient of 1.17 for first-round wide receivers. Second- and third-round receivers, on the other hand, have earned a superior 2.32 and 2.06, respectively.
Does this mean the Patriots should pass on selecting a wide receiver in the first round if one of the top-tier prospects fell to them at No. 15? Not necessarily, given that first-rounders are usually safer projections than other players who are expected to be selected in Rounds Two or Three. However, New England should not be afraid to miss out on an elite receiver talent just by using their first-round capital in a different fashion (e.g. at quarterback).
If the chance presents itself to draft a wide receiver in the second or third rounds, the Patriots could get a solid return on their investment even though past drafts have not been kind to them in that range.
Anything can happen in the draft, of course, but if Bill Belichick and Co. to go after a wide receiver, they should not be afraid to wait until the second day — especially given the recent difference makers that emerged from that range recently. Whether it was DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown or Michael Gallup, they all showed that the success rate of picking wideouts is not necessarily dependent on draft round.
Impact players at the position can still be found beyond the first round, and the Patriots — owning picks Nos. 46 and 96 — are in a perfect spot to do just that.