NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
Last week this column examined the uncertainty surrounding Wes Welker’s contract situation and suggested that New England could be in search of a replacement (immediate or otherwise) next April, targeting a player such as Texas A&M’s Ryan Swope.
However, the Patriots could still be in the market for a wide receiver regardless of how Welker’s contract situation pans out.
Bill Belichick must not have been satisfied with New England’s play at wide receiver in 2011 because the Patriots have added a number of wide receivers this offseason in what represents a significant overhaul of the personnel group: Jeremy Ebert, Jabar Gaffney, Anthony Gonzalez, Brandon Lloyd, Matt Roark, and Donte’ Stallworth are all competing for roster spots in 2012 after spending their 2011 seasons elsewhere, whether in college (Ebert, Roark) or on another NFL team.
Chad Ochocinco agreed to cut his base salary from $3.4 million to $1 million, but may still be a long-shot to end up on the final roster based on his lack of production last season.
Some of the positional overhaul can be traced back to Josh McDaniels taking over as New England’s offensive coordinator; McDaniels’ offense features more spread concepts than Bill O’Brien, and four of the Patriots’ offensive additions this offseason – Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd, Donte’ Stallworth, and fullback Spencer Larsen – have experience playing under McDaniels.
It appears that McDaniels holds significant sway over New England’s personnel decisions on the offensive side of the ball; Belichick knows he must provide McDaniels with the players he needs to execute his offense as effectively as possible. Brandon Lloyd, who signed a three-year deal this off-season, appears to be a lock to win one of the outside spots, and Wes Welker will occupy the slot (at least in 2012), but one outside spot is still up for grabs and none of the other receivers who could realistically win that position (Deion Branch, Gaffney, Ochocinco, Stallworth) represents a long-term fix.
New England could opt to take advantage of the early-round talent projected to be available in the 2013 NFL Draft in order to find a long-term solution on the outside. McDaniels appears to value size at wide receiver; the Broncos drafted two tall receivers in 2010 during the final year of McDaniels’ tenure as head coach and general manager in Denver: 6’3” Demariyus Thomas in the first round and 6’3” Eric Decker in the third round.
The Patriots have lacked tall wide receivers for some time and Randy Moss is the last Patriots receiver who had the ability to stretch defenses vertically so the Patriots will almost certainly be forced to look outside of the organization in order to complement Lloyd with a young, tall, athletic wide receiver who fits McDaniels’ scheme.
Fortunately, there are a number of draft-eligible wide receivers next year who could potentially fit what McDaniels is looking for; New England addressed the defense with their first six picks in 2012 and could consequently shift their early-round focus to the offensive side of the ball in April by targeting a position such as wide receiver in the first or second round.
Arkansas wide receivers were well-represented in the 2012 NFL Draft, with three Razorbacks targets being selected in the fourth round: Joe Adams (104th overall), Jarius Wright (118th overall), and Greg Childs (134th overall.) That trio of prospects overshadowed receiver Cobi Hamilton, who enters his senior season at Arkansas with only modest career production (34 receptions for 542 yards and six touchdowns in 2011) but who is projected to develop into a much bigger factor in 2012 with the Razorbacks.
Hamilton is more physically gifted than any of Arkansas’ prospects from last season and could be drafted much higher than his former teammates with a strong senior year; considering his physical tools the late first round or early second round is not out of the realm of possibility.
The similarities between Arkansas’ pro-style spread under Bobby Petrino (which is almost certain to be retained by new head coach John L. Smith) and New England’s spread offense under McDaniels could give Hamilton an edge over other draft-eligible receivers with similar skillsets. Hamilton also produced as a sophomore, when Patriots backup quarterback Ryan Mallett was able to connect with Hamilton 32 times for 630 yards and six touchdowns (19.7 yards per catch.)
The first thing that stands out about Hamilton is his size. At 6’3” and 210 pounds, he is bigger than the defensive backs he lines up against and uses his length to his advantage. Hamilton showcases a wide catching radius thanks to his long arms, as well as the ability to track the ball in the air and make adjustments as necessary.
Hamilton uses his frame effectively in order to shield the ball from defenders and prevent them from being able to make a play. Size isn’t Hamilton’s only tool 0 he is also deceptively fast, a long-strider who has primarily been used as a deep threat during his first three years in Fayetteville (17.9 career yards per catch) and is expected to post a 40-yard dash time of around 4.5 seconds at the NFL Combine.
After the catch Hamilton is a physical, aggressive runner who fights for extra yards and is not afraid to mix it up with defensive backs. Many of the routes Hamilton runs in college (the go route, deep posts, crossing routes, curls and comebacks) are designed in order to let him make plays with his feet after securing the ball.
Bill Belichick emphasized rebuilding at wide receiver this offseason but the Patriots still lack youth at the position, and many of the team’s targets (Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Anthony Gonzalez, Donte’ Stallworth, and Wes Welker) are set to become free agents at the end of the season.
The lack of long-term options could force Belichick to investigate adding young wide receivers who fit Josh McDaniels’ spread offense next offseason. The SEC has long been a pipeline for the Patriots in the draft; Cobi Hamilton’s combination of size and athleticism, experience in an offense which features pro-style routes, and chemistry with quarterback Ryan Mallett make him a wide receiver to keep an eye on in 2012.
Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, and Greg Childs have prevented Hamilton from producing like a top receiver prospect thus far, but Hamilton will be given every opportunity to establish himself as a high draft pick as a senior. He must substantially increase his production in 2012 but is projected to do just that as Tyler Wilson’s number one target in one of college football’s most productive passing attacks.