With the offseason workout program over, we have to wait until training camp to see any players on the field for the New England Patriots again. One of the men who didn’t see a lot of prominent action in spring — partially because of the depth at his position — was rookie wide receiver Tyquan Thornton.
The Patriots moved up in the second round of this year’s draft to take the speedster from Baylor, so they obviously liked him a lot. The question, as with every draft pick, is this: “Should we trust that they made the right decision with Thornton?”
To answer that question, we need to look at what the Patriots have done in the past. I have always been a “In Bill We Trust” guy, and have constantly used examples of what they have done in their history as reasoning for that, so I need to stay consistent here. I’m going to eliminate anyone drafted Round 4 or later, as, most of the time, those guys are not being drafted to be real game-changers.
Let’s therefore take a closer look at the receivers drafted by the Patriots in the first three rounds since Bill Belichick took over in 2000.
2002: Deion Branch (2-65)
Branch didn’t put up gaudy numbers, never eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards in a season in his career, but he was always one of Tom Brady’s favorite and most reliable targets. He was a dependable option at wide receiver, and had the final catch of Super Bowl 38 to put the Patriots into field goal range for Adam Vinatieri to win the game. He was also the MVP of Super Bowl 39, tying Jerry Rice’s record for receptions in a Super Bowl at the time.
To top that off, there was almost no notable wide receivers drafted after him in 2002 until the Patriots selected David Givens in the seventh round. This pick was an unquestionable slam dunk for the Patriots, and one of the most important offensive draft picks of the first dynasty.
2003: Bethel Johnson (2-45)
Johnson was an explosive return man, and was drafted for his speed upside. He had one amazing diving catch against the Seattle Seahawks that I remember, but, outside of that, never really did much on offense: he never finished a season with more than 16 catches.
Johnson did have two kick return touchdowns, and was always a decent player on special teams, but that is simply not enough for a player drafted in the first three rounds, never mind in the top 50. Add in the fact that Anquan Boldin was drafted just nine picks later, and there is nothing to conclude other than that this pick was a massive bust.
2006: Chad Jackson (2-36)
The Patriots traded picks 52 and 75 to move up and select Jackson, an athletic freak out of Florida. Unfortunately, he simply never lived up to his hype, for one reason or another. He ended his rookie season by tearing his ACL in the AFC Championship game, which left him behind the eight-ball to start off 2007.
The Patriots then added a ton of options, and Jackson was buried on the depth chart and eventually cut before the 2008 season. To say he was a bust would be a gross understatement. Throw in the fact that the Green Bay Packers drafted Pro Bowler Greg Jennings with the pick the Patriots sent them to move up, and it becomes one of, if not the single worst wide receiver selection of the Bill Belichick era.
The only positive you can say about the pick is that at least the consensus before the draft was that Jackson and Santonio Holmes were the two best receivers available. The Patriots didn’t veer off when making their bad pick, as they have other times with second-round guys like Jordan Richards or Tavon Wilson.
2009: Brandon Tate (3-83)
Another speed guy, Tate was brought in to try to fill the void left by not being able to draft any good receivers. He was unable to fill it though, as he never materialized into a starter-caliber player on offense and was cut by the Patriots before the 2011 season.
Tate was another quality special teamer and return man who ended up playing 10 years in the NFL. Again, however: not what you’re hoping for from a top-100 draft pick. Add in the fact that Mike Wallace was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the very next selection, and there is no doubt that this pick qualifies as yet another bust for New England.
2010: Taylor Price (3-90)
A year after drafting Tate in the third round, the Patriots took another wideout, and this one worked out even worse. Price put up pretty pedestrian numbers at Ohio University — not Ohio State, not Miami (OH): Ohio University! — so it was a bit of a surprise to see him come off the board so early.
Price never lived up to his draft status, and became yet another player cut after his second year with the team. He was another massive bust on a team that really needed receiver help and would finish his NFL career with five catches for 80 yards.
The Patriots received pick No. 90 when they traded down with the Dallas Cowboys in the first round. Dallas drafted Dez Bryant, and the Patriots went with Devin McCourty. McCourty, of course was a fantastic player, and they also ended up drafting Rob Gronkowski in the second round, so the 2010 draft actually turned out to be pretty good anyway.
2013: Aaron Dobson (2-59)
The Patriots were in a state of transition in 2013, and really needed an outside receiver, so they took the big-bodied Dobson out of Marshall in the second round. He was said to have zero drops his final season there, and had one of the best single highlights I’ve ever seen — a ridiculous one-handed contested catch in the end zone:
Dobson actually had a decent rookie season, putting up over 500 yards on 37 catches, but he was plagued by injuries and the Patriots were without him for chunks of the season. He showed flashes of being able to play, but he just couldn’t stay on the field. He was cut after three years in New England, never playing more than 12 games in a single season, and never coming close to his rookie production.
The 2013 draft was even worse because New England drafted another receiver, Josh Boyce, in the fourth round who never did anything. They tried to revamp their receiving corps and failed miserably. To make matters even worse, the future Los Angeles Chargers took perennial Pro Bowler Keenan Allen less than 20 picks after Dobson. Allen has also struggled with injuries, but has consistently been a top-tier receiver in the NFL anyway.
2019: N’Keal Harry (1-32)
The Patriots waited six seasons, and won three Super Bowls, before drafting another wide receiver in the first three rounds (although 2016 fourth-rounder rounder Malcolm Mitchell helped them win one of those titles). Coming off a Super Bowl victory, and thinking — incorrectly — that Tom Brady was nearing the end of his career, the Patriots knew they needed to get him a true No. 1 option at receiver.
To do this, they took Harry, a physical receiver out of Arizona State. Harry started his career on injured reserve, missed important time with Brady, and didn’t play at all until Week 10 of his rookie season. He would not finish a game his first year with more than three catches, and arguably his best play of the season was one where he was incorrectly called out of bounds against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cam Newton tried to gas him up and get him going in 2020, and he had one good game against the Seattle Seahawks, but, outside of that one, never had more than 52 receiving yards in a single game in his career. Harry has been a great blocker, but that is something you look for from your undrafted receivers, not your first round picks.
What makes the Harry pick even worse for the Patriots are the players drafted after him. Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, who literally grew up a Patriots fan, DK Metcalf, Diontae Johnson, and Terry McLaurin were all drafted in 2019 as well. Replacing Harry with any of those players would make the Patriots receiver room significantly better, and probably would have prevented them from overpaying for Nelson Agholor last season, too.
The Harry pick was a big giant bust — one from which the Patriots are still trying to recover.
2022: Tyquan Thornton (2-50)
That brings us to this season, and the Patriots taking Thornton at pick No. 50. Again, they read the draft perfectly, knowing that receivers were coming off the board, and getting in front of the run to get the guy they wanted. After seeing the history of their decision making at the position, however, it’s hard to have confidence that Thornton was indeed the best player on the board at the time.
Players taken after him include George Pickens, Skyy Moore, and Alec Pierce. One thing that actually might favor them in this situation is that Thornton wasn’t a guy who was rated highly by the media. In the cases of Dobson, Jackson, and even Harry, they took guys who the media was high on, and seemed to be making the right picks at the time. Most people had Jackson going in the first round, so that move was actually praised at the time.
The media reaction to this pick was very different, though. Imagine making the argument that most people considered it a reach, and so that’s actually better for the Patriots? Sounds insane, but that’s just what I’m doing.
Only time will tell whether or not Thornton was the right pick, or whether one of the receivers taken only a few picks after him will be superior, like what’s happened to the Patriots in the past. For the sake of the team, the offense, and Mac Jones’s career, the hope is that Thornton can be the one to change the team’s luck on drafting receivers.
Purely based on the history, though, I might not hold my breath.