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Patriots draft targets 2023: Josh Downs could be New England’s next slot machine

If New England does not want to invest in a wide receiver on Day 1, Downs would make sense on Day 2.

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ACC Championship - Clemson v North Carolina Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Coming off a rather disappointing 8-9 season, the New England Patriots have plenty of potential for improvement. They already addressed some areas of need so far this offseason, but will now look to add long-term stability and additional playmaking ability through the NFL Draft. With 11 selections in hand, Bill Belichick and company are in a good position to do just that.

How they will ultimately use those picks remains to be seen. However, there are several players who would fit what they are looking for both at positions of need and at other spots all over the roster.

In our Patriots Draft Targets series, we will be taking a close look at some prospects we believe might be falling into that “fit” category. Today, let’s assess a projected Day 2 wide receiver.

Hard facts

Name: Josh Downs

Position: Slot receiver

School: North Carolina

Opening day age: 22

Size: 5’9 1/8”, 171 lbs, 30 3/8” arm length, 9 1/4” hand size

Workout numbers: 4.48s 40-yard dash, 6.75s 3-cone drill, 4.15s short shuttle, 38 1/2” vertical jump, 131” broad jump, 8.98 Relative Athletic Score


A multi-sport athlete at North Gwinnett High School in his hometown of Suwanee, Georgia, Downs made the move to the college level as a four-star recruit. He arrived in North Carolina as an early enrollee, and over the next three seasons went on to see action in 34 games. Following a relatively quiet first nine games as a freshman that saw him catch just three passes for 28 yards and a touchdown, he broke out in game No. 10: in the Tar Heels’ season finale, he registered seven catches for 119 yards and two scores. It was a sign of things to come.

As a sophomore in 2020, Downs caught 101 passes for 1,335 yards and eight TDs in 13 games. He followed it up with a 94-catch, 1,029-yard, 11-touchdown junior season in 2022 — one he is now hoping to use a springboard for the jump to the NFL. His résumé certainly is an impressive one: he was voted first-team All-ACC the last two years and despite spending just three seasons with the Tar Heels will leave as one of the most productive pass catchers in school history: he is ranked second and third, respectively, in career touchdown receptions and career catches.

Draft profile

Expected round: 2nd

Strengths: Downs’ production these last two seasons speaks for itself. He is a reliable and heady player who knows how to create space on all three levels through his route-running, anticipation and footwork. He is a smooth mover in his routes — from the release, through the stem, to the break, to the catch point — and has the quickness in open space to shake defenders free and create yards after the catch. His long speed might not be overwhelming compared to other wideouts, but the burst out of his stance is nothing short of impressive (as evidenced by his 1.49-second 10-yard split at the Scouting Combine).

Despite a lack of size, he is a very good contested-catch receiver. The timing on his jumps combined with good concentration and powerful and good-sized hands allows him to complete receptions even with defenders near him or when passes are thrown outside his frame. Per Pro Football Focus, he won 72.2 percent of his contested catches which is a testament to both his positioning and his ability as a “hands” catcher. All in all, he is a very quarterback-friendly receiver.

Weaknesses: The conversation on Josh Downs starts and ends with his size. His height and weight rank in the 8 and 2 percentile for wide receivers, respectively, which in turn could pose a problem at the next level; he has to prove himself against press-man cornerbacks in the NFL who might be capable of moving him off his routes or making those aforementioned contested catches more difficult. In addition, his small frame and lack of power is less than ideal when it comes to contributions as a run blocker; he will have to go up against bigger players regularly in that department.

As noted above, his long speed — he ran the 40-yard dash at 4.48 seconds — is solid but not necessarily impressive. Combined with his stature this might also limit his usage at the next level: he projects as an interior player only and is a question mark when aligned play-side in the running game or even up on the line of scrimmage in an X-alignment. Additionally, despite being very good at plugging the ball out of the air he has also had some uncharacteristic drops.

Patriots fit

What would be his role in 2023? Downs projects as an interior receiver at the next level and would first and foremost serve as a slot option in the New England offense. As such, he would primarily be a package receiver early on in his career alongside players such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kendrick Bourne. In terms of workload as a rookie, he would be a WR3/WR4-type option with value in the short and intermediate game on third downs or in long-yardage situations.

What is his growth potential? Given that he is already a rather advanced route runner, Downs’ growth potential will depend on his ability to maximize his frame. If he can get stronger at the point of attack, he should be more capable of helping out as a blocker on earlier downs. If so, he might become a starter-caliber slot by Year 2 or Year 3 and a safety blanket for quarterback Mac Jones.

Does he have positional versatility? Downs’ size will likely not allow him to be moved all over the formation. That said, his burst and abilities as a runner with the ball in his hands make him an intriguing option on misdirection run plays like reverses or jet sweeps. He was not used like that at all in college — his lone carry came as a freshman and went for -3 yards — but might have some potential in that area. Additionally, he could help out as a return man in case New England might want to limit Marcus Jones’ exposure.

What adding him would mean for the depth chart: Given that he will likely be a Day 2 pick, Downs would be guaranteed a spot on the Patriots’ roster in 2023. Adding him would therefore have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the depth chart: Kendrick Bourne’s standing would become more shaky given that he is also entering the final year of his contract, while Tre Nixon and Lynn Bowden Jr. would probably be forced to waive their already slim hopes of making the 53-man squad goodbye.

Why the Patriots make sense as a landing spot: While JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kendrick Bourne (just like the since-departed Jakobi Meyers) fall into the Z-receiver category, the Patriots haven’t had a true slot such as Downs since the days of Danny Amendola. He could be that type of player for them, and in turn would take some pressure off Smith-Schuster and/or Bourne. Size is a definitive concern — Amendola stood at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, for comparison — but his skillset is one New England has successfully managed to incorporate in years past.

Patriots contact: Meeting at North Carolina Pro Day

Verdict: Downs will probably be a bit higher up on the Patriots’ board when compared to other teams, and rightfully so. He fits what the team likes to do on offense schematically and personnel-wise, and with some time in an NFL strength program might become more than “just” a late-down chain mover. If the team does not want to invest a first-round pick in somebody like Zay Flowers, Downs would be more than just a consolation prize: he has plenty of upside to become a reliable and productive player at the pro level.

Would Downs be a good fit for the Patriots? Where do you think he will be drafted? Please head down to the comment section to discuss!