Being a fan of the New England Patriots has always come with a unique set of, let’s call them, challenges.
Fortunately, ever since Nelly released Ride Wit Me, these challenges have mostly fallen into the Champagne Problems category; wondering who’s going to be there at pick No. 32 in the draft, which jersey you’ll buy next for the Sundays when your Brady home AND away jerseys are in the wash, whether your boss will approve your PTO request for the Monday after the Super Bowl, and that sort of thing.
One of the more persistently annoying ones, though, has been the way both fans and the people that get paid American dollars to cover this team act like just because Bill Belichick and the Pats have failed at something once, they should just not even bother trying.
Because, as we all know, if the first girl you ask to the prom says no, you should just accept that you’re going to be forever alone and start pricing out that cabin in New Hampshire to live the rest of your days in the woods.
Yeah, it’s that time of the year where we talk about drafting wide receivers, and few things are as infuriating as when we inevitably see the, “Here’s a list of the Patriots draft picks at wide receiver, LMAO” make the rounds on Twitter and in mock drafts alike. Never mind the part where Belichick has drafted two, count ‘em, two Super Bowl MVP receivers. It’s funny to laugh at Chad Jackson and Aaron Dobson and N’Keal Harry. Get it? It’s funny. Aren’t you laughing yet?
Thanks for putting up with that, that was cathartic.
The counterpart to that mindset that seems to be common consensus is that there are a handful of teams that are just good at drafting wide receivers. We’re not talking about, say, the Kansas City Chiefs that fall ass-backwards into Tyreek Hill in the fifth round of the draft. You already know the usual suspects that just seem to strike gold at receiver time and time again; that’s the reason there’s the running joke that every team that can’t find pass-catchers should just outsource the job of drafting them to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And in lieu of the Patriots being able to swing their own trade for an A.J. Brown/Stefon Diggs/insert your current receiver crush here, maybe we should consider an alternate proposal: kind of like the Patriots seem to be really, really good at finding offensive line diamonds in the rough, maybe the teams we think are good at drafting wideouts are simply good because..... they draft them a lot, and eventually some of those picks are probably going to pan out.
To examine this theory, let’s put the recent draft history for five teams under the microscope: the Steelers, of course, followed by their AFC North enemies the Cincinnati Bengals, the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Minnesota Vikings.
I also wanted a better way to quantify the resources these teams regularly throw into finding quality receivers than, “Uuuuuh they draft them a lot?”, so we can use our homie Rich Hill’s draft value chart to, at least approximately, figure out how much draft capital gets used in the hopes that teams find their own Randy Moss/Jerry Rice/insert your GOAT here.
We’ll look at the last 10 years just to keep some semblance of consistency, but let’s keep in mind that the point here is that when it comes to drafting wide receivers, you can’t win if you don’t play.
Since we’ve name-dropped the Steelers half a dozen times already, let’s start there.
(Keep in mind that on Rich’s Draft Value chart, the first overall pick is worth 1,000 points)
The Big Names: George Pickens, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster
Draft Value Spent, 2013-2022: 668.91
The Steelers are the team that inspired this whole idea, and ironically enough, one of the greatest Day 3 flyers of all time, Antonio Brown, just barely misses the cut. AB was a 2010 sixth-round “last day in Vegas, screw it, why not” $5 bets that just so happened to turn into one of the most dominant wide receivers of the 2010s before becoming, well, the Antonio Brown we know and don’t love today.
(funny enough, Emmanuel Sanders was drafted the same year, and three rounds higher than Brown)
Pittsburgh, though, is notable because they sink premium picks into the wide receiver position almost every year, or at least every year since “it’s a passing league” became less of a colloquialism and more of a way of life. Out of those 668.91 points of draft value, though, the four guys we mentioned above account for barely half of the draft capital they spent, at 387.42. The rest will... not impress you.
Most recently, in 2018, Pittsburgh spent pick No. 60 on James Washington, who after a cup of coffee with the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, is currently a free agent. Then they had Demarcus Ayers in 2016 (pick 229, so, whatever), Sammie Coates at pick 87 in 2015, and the double-shot of Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant in 2014 at picks 97 and 118, respectively. As for 2013, the Stillers dropped pick 79 on Markus Wheaton and 186 on Justin Brown. Neither of whom, I’m guessing, you remember unless you made them into a hoss in Madden.
While it’s always fun to laugh at the Steelers, that’s not the point; the point is that the reason it seems like they keep churning out baller receivers is because they consistently invest high-value, if not first-round, draft picks in the position.
Let’s stay in the division and move on to the other team in the AFC North that seems to always have one of those “You gotta be kidding me” guys:
The Big Names: Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd
Draft Value Spent, 2013-2022: 1,167.21
The next time I spell Cincinnati right on the first try will be the first.
Anyway, that draft value spent number above doesn’t even include the era when Cincy, in the span of 24 months, stumbled into future Hall of Famer A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones in back-to-back drafts in 2011 and 2012. Even with those guys not in the mix, they still finagled the Avengers squad that Joe Burrow has been looking at for the past 2 years on 3rd and 8 like “let’s go empty; SOMEONE’s gotta be open. Worst case: Ja’Marr’s down there somewhere”.
Funny enough, the Bengals haven’t really used that many good draft picks on wide receivers, relatively speaking; it’s just that they’ve hit on three good-to-great ones in the last couple years, all picked on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft, and that conveniently draws all the attention away from one of their all-time face-plants.
Picking Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins at picks 5 and 33, respectively, looks like genius in hindsight. So does Tyler Boyd at pick 55 in 2016. Sandwiched in between those, though; people don’t forget, they spent the 9th overall pick in 2017 on... John Ross, who still holds the NFL Combine 40-yard-dash record at 4.22 seconds. Ross is also one of the more inglorious busts in recent draft history, only recording one touch (!) in his rookie season and, to date, compiling 957 career receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
So, in contrast to the Steelers’ approach of almost always throwing a second- or third-round pick at the receiver position every year, the Bengals are an even more extreme example of “You gotta spend money to make money”. And that has them currently looking like they’ll be one of those decade-long runs with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, if not Burrow/Chase/Higgins, where they’ll be slinging TikTok-worthy TDs until one of them doesn’t want to be there anymore.
Speaking of those kids and their darn Ticky-Tocky, let’s move on to the team that cursed the Patriots with having to deal with Stefon Diggs twice a year and somehow replaced him with someone even better.
The Big Names: Justin Jefferson, Stefon Diggs, and... do you really need anyone else?
Draft Capital Spent, 2013-2022: 753.61
Seriously, what the hell, right? How are the Vikings just going to replace an all-time franchise great with Justin freakin’ Jefferson, who may well keep incinerating the record books until he hangs up his spikes with numbers up there with Moss and T.O.? There are starving fans in Cleveland!
The 10-year window we’re looking at here provides us with a pretty fun pair of anecdotal bookends, though. And Adam Thielen isn’t even part of the equation here, because he signed as a free agent out of Minnesota State-Mankato. For as otherworldly good as Jefferson and Diggs both are, the Vikings really took a couple cream pies in the face trying to find the elusive WR1.
Justin Jefferson, of course, was sitting there for the Vikings to gobble up at pick 22 in 2020, just one pick before the Patriots were scheduled to pick and eventually traded out of. He joined a team that had just traded contested-catch cheat code Stefon Diggs, and promptly put up 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns with a tidy 15.9 yards per reception as a rookie. It is completely factual to say he came in and looked at playing the NFL wide receiver position like, “What, like it’s hard?”
Understandably enough, the Vikings didn’t spend a ton of draft capital on wide receivers in between finding Diggs and replacing him with Jefferson, just the occasional Day 3 flyer like Dillon Mitchell and Rodney Adams (I don’t know who either of those guys are either). That does conveniently bring us back to 2016, however, when Minnesota spent the 23rd overall pick on Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell, who was dangerously close to achieving the “Here Lies Beavis: He Never Scored” award. Treadwell only found the end zone twice in his four years in Minnesota, and never even started more than seven games in a season.
Oh, it gets worse if you’re Minnesota. You only have to go back three more years to find the Vikings jonesing for the Madden-created-player size/speed combo of future Patriots legend Cordarrelle Patterson, and the Vikings sent the Patriots a second-, third-, fourth-, and a seventh-round pick for the privilege of drafting him. Patterson has 4.4 speed, and somehow has still never eclipsed 550 receiving yards in a season. He did, however, turn into an extremely fun gadget player and Super Bowl champion with the 2018 Patriots, and has logged some quite respectable numbers as the Atlanta Falcons’ RB1 and backfield double-threat in the last two years. We’ll have to wait and see if he’s as effective a recruiter as he is as a YAC runner.
Man if we land Lamar!! The city will go crazy!!!!! I mean crazy crazy l!!!!— cordarrelle patterson (@ceeflashpee84) March 7, 2023
Next up, the team that seemingly perpetually bemoans their lack of Weaponz, and no, I’m not joking.
Green Bay Packers
The Big Names: Davante Adams, and.....yeah, Davante Adams
Draft Capital Spent, 2013-2022: 441.27
There’s few things cheeseheads love more than to tell you how the poor, unfortunate Aaron Rodgers has never had a first-round receiver to play with. And the point they make is technically accurate, if not entirely misleading. Until recently, that’d be like saying Peyton Manning has beaten all 32 NFL teams, and Tom Brady only beat 31.
The Packers aren’t really a perfect example of our thesis here, since they’ve spent approximately as much on receiver drafting as the Patriots have in the last decade. In terms of the sheer number of dudes that they picked that at least have some name recognition from your fantasy team, though, it’s a pretty decent example of trying to throw as many darts as you can, while not spending premium picks on pass-catchers.
(Spoiler alert: it worked out about as well for Green Bay as it’s working out for the Patriots)
Davante Adams is basically a short-list candidate for best receiver in the game these days until he’s not, and while that’s how we’ve all thought of him for years now, it’s worth noting that his NFL debut was anything but smooth; it wasn’t that long ago that Packers fans had just as much venom for Adams as Patriots fans had for Aaron Dobson. Now, he’s already 15th on the all-time receiving touchdowns list, and he’ll almost surely overtake Rob Gronkowski and may even catch Steve Largent, Tim Brown, and Tony Gonzales by the time it’s all said and done.
So while Adams has, to say the least, vastly outperformed his draft position, here’s a list of some guys the Packers have tried to plug in over the years as the Will Smith to Adams’ Martin Lawrence:
- 2022: Christian Watson (pick 34), Romeo Doubs (pick 132)
- 2021: Amari Rodgers (pick 85)
- 2018: J’Mon Moore (pick 133), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (pick 174), Equanimeous St-Brown (pick 207)
That probably exhausts the guys you know from fantasy, so let’s not forget DeAngelo Yancey (2017), Trevor Davis (2016), and Patriots enigma Ty Montgomery (2015, pick 94), among a couple others.
For the finale, it’s time for the team that took the guy that everyone has decided at various junctures was born to be a Patriot.
San Francisco 49ers
The Big Names: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk
Draft Capital Spent, 2013-2022: 719.57
Anyone that drafts Deebo Samuel, or any receiver from the 2019 NFL draft besides N’Keal, has to know ball, right?
Sorry if the gist of the preceding 2,000 words gave it away, but, the Niners striking gold lately (please pardon the pun, I already hate myself for it) is a product of, yet again, spending the picks and eventually finding a guy that’s licensed to carry a BAMF wallet.
After Michael Crabtree (pick 10 waaaaaay back in ‘09) headlined the WR corps for the short-lived-but-god-they-were-fun Colin Kaepernick 49ers that lost a Super Bowl, San Fran went into the no-man’s land of being always good, never great. And you could argue that they’re still there, but they’re a hell of a lot more dangerous now, with the additions of Deebo and a he-finally-fulfilled-the-prophecy Brandon Aiyuk.
In between there, though? Let’s say there were some picks the Niners surely wish they had back.
Heck, just to illustrate how random this whole thing can be sometimes, in that same draft that San Francisco found Deebo, the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch braintrust we’re told can make anything work lit pick 67 on fire with WR convert Jalen Hurd, who has yet to log an NFL stat of any kind. The year before that, Pats draft crush Dante Pettis went to San Francisco with pick 44, and has yet to top his Aaron Dobson-esque rookie season of 467 yards on 27 receptions and five scores. Pettis has since been banished to Da Bears.
Ironically, the only other name the 49ers have picked that may be remotely recognizable in our 10-year window besides the guys mentioned above is Bruce Ellington, a 5-foo-9’ 200-pound fourth-round pick from 2014. Our timeframe cutoff also just barely misses the Niners dropping a precious first-rounder in 2012 on.....(drumroll please).....WR A.J. Jenkins, who was drafted at No. 30 overall and logged 17 catches for 223 yards and zero touchdowns in his career before peacing out of the NFL entirely after three seasons, the latter two of which were spent with the Chiefs following a trade. So, yeah. Not in our Draft Value Spent calculations, but still. Woof.
So, for the three of you that are still with us, the question is just screaming at this point: If all those teams that are air-quotes-good spent that much draft capital on wide receivers, how do the Patriots measure up?
I’ll give you the answer, with a trigger warning that a) you’re not going to like it, and b) you REALLY won’t like the shot/chaser at the end.
In the timeframe we’re referring to here, 2013-2022, which, let’s remember, is basically from the post-Randy Moss-Wes Welker era of the Patriots through the present, the Patriots have allocated......
460.26 points on the Rich Hill Draft Value Chart, total.
Here’s the part that hits like Malört, though: out of those 460.26 points, 184.3 of them alone were thrown off a bridge by picking N’Keal Harry at No. 32 overall in 2019, and another 90.84 were Aaron Dobson at the 59th pick in 2013. To put all my cards on the table, the only other big-name guy that’s on this list besides Super Bowl legend Malcolm Mitchell is 2022’s second-round pick Tyquan Thornton, who I’m still quite bullish on, but, if we’re being fair, is somewhere between unproven and underwhelming after his rookie campaign.
Other Patriots legends that factored into this calculation include Josh Boyce, Jeremy Gallon, Devin Lucien, new Miami Dolphin Braxton Berrios, and the aforementioned actual Patriots legend Malcolm Mitchell. Not to get too sidetracked, but if Malcolm Mitchell’s body didn’t simply decide it was done with football after the 28-3 Bowl, we may be having an entirely different convers........you know what, never mind. This is not productive, and it’s also making me a little sad.
Back to the present: none of these metrics or draft values or ways of gauging draft success are perfect, and everyone who’s had to use them extensively would probably tell you as much. What the data certainly would suggest, though, is that the Patriots have the same problem a lot of us fellas had with the ladies in high school: you can’t win if you don’t try. If you don’t put yourself out there, then, well, don’t be surprised when minimal effort and minimal investment nets minimal returns!
The digestif (that’s a drink you drink after dinner) I’ll leave you with is this, from the Ringer’s Ben Solak; we’ve all been hearing at least since Brady and the OG Dynasty Pats laid waste to the entire NFL that It’s A Passing League, right?
Finally, that’s trickling down to every level of football, and Ben’s theory is simple: with so many kids playing 7-on-7 and flag football, and also seeing guys like Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes on TV, passing is the present and the future, and as such, there will be more talented wide receiver prospects than ever.
There’ll probably never be a (air-quotes) Bad Wide Receiver Draft ever again.
So even though in the latter half of the dynasty, Brady was able to make it work with Gronk, Edelman, and a supporting cast that can largely be categorized as bubblegum, duct tape, and popsicle sticks, that ain’t the world we live in anymore. Now that the Patriots have found their own personal version of Schitt’s Creek, we have to play the game by the same rules of physics as everyone else.
And while trading for DeAndre Hopkins sounds like all the fun we can handle around here.....who says, after all that we just talked about, that the next dart that the Patriots throw at the receiver position couldn’t be their very own DeAndre Hopkins?
D-Hop was, after all, pick 27 in 2013. Almost 20 picks ahead of Nuk, the first wide receiver off the board that year was....5-foot-8 185-pound Tavon Austin. Anything can happen, but the best way to succeed is, quite simply, to keep trying.
For once, the fans clamoring for a PLAYMAKER that can help TAKE MAC TO THE NEXT LEVEL and the data dorks may actually both be right.