NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The New England Patriots do not have many pressing needs going into the 2013 NFL draft, but the one position they absolutely must address at least once in the early rounds is at wide receiver.
Of the wide receivers to catch passes for the Patriots last season, the only one currently on their roster for the 2013 season is Julian Edelman, who is a versatile and athletic slot receiver but has issues with durability. The Patriots brought in a solid replacement for Wes Welker in the slot in free-agent signing Danny Amendola, but Brandon Lloyd was released while the only other significant wide receiver additions were Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones, neither of whom is a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster.
The Patriots should continue to be strong in the slot from adding Amendola and bringing back Edelman, but what they need to do now is add some size, speed and playmaking ability on the outside. That said, given that the Patriots’ offense emphasizes the intermediate passing game over deep threats at wide receiver (with the Randy Moss years serving as an exception to the rule), the Patriots could continue to look at smaller, shiftier receivers at the right price if they have the physicality and route-running to succeed playing outside.
USC’s Robert Woods, Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton and Tennessee’s Justin Hunter are among the most likely wide receiver choices for the Patriots in the first two rounds, but the Patriots should be considering a number of wide receivers throughout the draft as they should be in the market to add at least one in the early rounds and at least two total in the 2013 NFL Draft.
But although the wide receiver position is a major need for the Patriots, not every receiver in the draft class is a great fit for the New England Patriots. The following five receivers are unlikely to be among the wideouts the Patriots add to their roster in this year’s draft.
Tavon Austin, West Virginia
Back in the fall, Tavon Austin being projected to the New England Patriots as a replacement for Wes Welker was often a staple of my mock draft projections for the 2013 NFL Draft. That, however, was before the Patriots found a replacement for Welker in the slot with Amendola — and before Austin became widely projected as a top-20 draft choice and ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Now, it appears the only way the Patriots would be able to draft Austin would be to trade up significantly. His big-play ability would make him a value selection if he fell to the No. 29 overall pick, but he is not the best fit among receivers for the Patriots’ current needs, and with only three draft picks in the first three rounds, trading up for him would not make sense.
Keenan Allen, California
The Patriots have only drafted five wide receivers in the draft’s first three rounds since the beginning of the Bill Belichick era in New England. All of them ran pre-draft 40-yard dash times under 4.5 seconds, with the lone exception being Brandon Tate in 2009, a speed demon who was sidelined with a knee injury and did not run any 40s prior to that year’s draft.
Although all five of those receivers were busts with the exception of Deion Branch in 2002, it does show something about Belichick’s policy of drafting receivers: he likes them fast. That shouldn’t preclude the Patriots from drafting a wide receiver who runs in the 4.5-second range, but it could take California’s Keenan Allen off their board.
Allen is continuing to battle a knee injury that cut his junior season short, but even healthy, he is not a speed receiver. Combining his knee injury with the 4.71 40 he ran at his pro day (per NFL.com), Allen does not seem likely to be a player high on the Patriots’ draft board, even with the size and physicality that the Patriots could certainly benefit from on the outside.
Hunter, Baylor’s Terrance Williams and Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton would all be better choices for the Patriots in the Round 2-3 range where Allen will most likely be selected.
Conner Vernon, Duke
There are many reasons why Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon may actually deserve more attention than he is getting. He was a very productive receiver in the ACC who has very good hands and runs sharp, quick routes.
Vernon, however, will probably be limited to the slot at the next level. Even at 6 feet tall, he is not much of a vertical threat due to a lack of breakaway speed, as evidenced by his 4.68 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine. For a team that already has two quality slot receivers and potentially a slower outside receiver in Michael Jenkins, Vernon simply does not fit what the Patriots need, and is also likely to fall in the Round 4-6 range where the Patriots do not hold any draft choices.
Ace Sanders, South Carolina
Ace Sanders was one of the SEC’s most dynamic playmakers for South Carolina over the past two seasons, but he is limited to being a situational player at the next level. He is a skilled slot receiver and punt returner, but he is very small (5’7”, 173 pounds) and does not have good long speed for a small receiver (4.58 seconds).
In Edelman, the Patriots already have a secondary slot receiver who can return punts and be used on running plays — the same role that Sanders should be drafted to play at the next level. Considering that, Sanders really doesn’t fit the Patriots’ needs, and like Vernon, he is projected to be selected in the Round 4-6 range where the Patriots currently have no draft picks.
Marcus Davis, Virginia Tech
At 6’3” and 233 pounds, Virginia Tech’s Marcus Davis has the size that the Patriots could really use at the wide receiver position, in addition to athleticism and downfield playmaking ability that give him big upside as an outside receiver.
That said, he is unlikely to be among the Patriots pursue in the 2013 NFL draft. His combine 40 time (4.56 seconds) is slower than what the Patriots typically covet in their wide receivers, but more importantly, he has inconsistent hands, lacks polish as a route-runner and is an unwilling blocker — skills that helped receivers like Deion Branch establish a long career in New England, but hurt receivers like Chad Jackson and Bethel Johnson — all of whom were Round 2 picks for the Patriots, but with Branch being the only successful player of the trio.
If Davis is still available at one of the seventh-round picks the Patriots already hold on the draft board, they could take a chance at him based simply on his upside. There are other big receivers that could potentially be had late, however, including Rutgers’ Mark Harrison and Eastern Kentucky’s Tyrone Goard, who would be better fits for New England than Davis.