Armchair GM: Solving the Patriots' wide receiver problem

75756A5E-120A-4932-810C-2FD980DB785E

Welcome back to Armchair GM, your No. 1 source for prospective Patriots insight and information, by fans, for fans. Last week we took a look at the team’s position of greatest need, QUARTERBACK. This week we turn our attention to arguably the team’s next position of intense if not dire need, the people often at the other end of the quarterback’s intended generosity: WIDE RECEIVER

Yes, wide receiver, the two most anxiety inducing words for Pats fans, aside from “Tom Brady”. It is a position that has intermittently been of either great strength (2004, 2007, 2014) or great weakness (2006, 2013, 2020) under Bill Belichick. And at no time has the cupboard been more bare, the depth thinner, the talent more lacking. This is not a hot take, nor just my opinion. Pretty much everyone with eyes who watched the Pats the last two seasons, 2020 especially, knows they are three levels beyond desperate for help there.

Heading into the 2020 season the Pats wide receiving corps was ranked thirtieth in the league. With there being but thirty two teams, suffice to say, that’s not great, Bob. The Patriots “weaponz” had a hard time getting open, inside or out, all season, hence teams stacked the defensive front against the Pats with no fear of the receivers winning one-on-one battles. If we hadn’t had the “Is it Cam or is it the receivers?” debate a 150 times already we’d debate further, but we did. Spoiler: lose/lose debate.

Funny thing is the receiving corps might be worse, now. And this is with the advanced statistical gurus at PFF saying Jakobi Meyers was the 25th best WR in 2020. Why it took until halfway through the season for him to start is beyond me. Maybe the coaches were waiting for Jeff Thomas and Will Hastings to blossom. Points to everyone who remembers those names. Anyway, Meyers represents perhaps the only certainty of the 2021 receiving group, and while he’s a solid 2/3 he’s thrown twice as many touchdowns (2) as he’s caught (0). Julian Edelman has one year left on his deal, but missed over half of 2020 due to knee surgery, and a recent cryptic tweet left fans and media alike wondering if his time in New England was over. Even if he returns for a Foxboro farewell how much can he be relied on?

Time’s running out for N’Keal Harry to secure a role, let alone live up to anything resembling his 2019 1st round draft status. Damiere Byrd is a free agent and may cash in elsewhere after a reasonably productive season. Donte Moncrief had a few nice kick returns but as a receiver he had A catch. That’s right, A catch. Marquise Lee opted out of 2020 so he might return for 2021 and could be productive. Gunner Olsziewski (Gunnah!) is an All-Pro punt returner but he’s yet to emerge as the heir to The Slot Throne. And then there are three wide receivers signed to futures deals. Yup, this is a mess.

Armchair GM to the rebuild rescue! Here are our scouting suggestions from the sofa in hopes of helping the Pats completely remake the room every way possible. Of course it would help if they knew who’d be throwing them the ball. We’re not miracle workers here, people, just reasonably educated often inebriated fans. Hoping for a 2007-style makeover might be a bit much, so we’ll start with hoping Belichick doesn’t do all his free agency work in the discount bin, again, and actually drafts a receiver who contributes to the team, and not talk radio, Year One. If so then fire up the duck boats! Or at least get ready for double digit passing touchdowns. That sentence was typed without irony.

Here’s a quick peek at the best FA WR’s on the market.

And on the off-chance Belichick is in the mood to pay full sticker, maybe above, to get the cream of the crop then let’s start at the top.

FREE AGENCY

ALLEN ROBINSON - Gonna cost top dollar to get the top dog. Robinson is regarded as one of the best receivers in the NFL right now, and that’s having caught passes predominantly from Blake Bortles and Mitch Trubisky. Imagine what he can do with an elite QB! Imagine if we actually had a QB! Robinson is big, fast, has an enormous catch radius (football guy term du jour), great hands and is just entering his prime. His addition would make any existing receiving corps great, and gives you a receiving presence when you don’t have much of one. He’s been linked as a priority free agent target by many teams, the Patriots included and could potentially fetch the richest contract in receiver history because of it. My guess is Baltimore goes hard for him since Lamar Jackson needs his Stef Diggs to get to the next level, and who doesn’t really? Plus, it’s doubtful Bill breaks the bank when there are so many needs, but a fan can dream, right? That’s why I consider as a more realistic option...

MARVIN JONES - Jones can give you 75 percent of what Allen Robinson would deliver, likely at half the price. He is a few years older, but still has the size, strength, hands and big play ability you want out of your prototypical NFL receiver. In 2020 Jones filled in for the oft-injured Kenny Golladay (also a FA with size who will cash in), and was a legit No. 1, albeit on a terrible Lions team. For his career Jones has averaged over fourteen yards a catch and has over fifty TDs. This is instant legitimate outside presence on a team sorely lacking it. Jones is what you would dream N’Keal Harry could become, so perhaps bringing him into the fold to mentor a young receiving room would have benefits galore on and off the field.

CURTIS SAMUEL - If the Pats want to shake things up and add playmaking diversity aplenty to their offense then Samuel is their guy. Granted, having an offensive identity first would help, but a multi-faceted talent like Samuel should help any attack. He’s a true offensive Swiss Army Knife, something a forward thinking system like the Pats should covet. He has speed to spare and lines up all over the formation; outside, slot, running back - whatever you need, wherever you need it Samuel’s got it. It’s always a good idea to have your best season in a free agency year, and Samuel’s 2020 indicates he may just be scratching the surface of his playmaking ability. Hard to think a Pats team in desperate need of dynamic talent couldn’t find a multitude of ways to deploy him. Our guess here is his former college coach, Urban Meyer, offers him a pretty package to come make plays in Jacksonville with Trevor Lawrence. But should he field offers around the AFC he could be a star in Foxboro.

ALEX ERICKSON - Who? Exactly. Every so often the Patriots sign one of those guys and he turns into an instant fan favorite with his attitude, effort and production. And the soon to be former Bengal could be that guy. Think a discount Chris Hogan for an offense in flux. Erickson fell behind in Cincinnati due to their glut of receiving talent, but he can still game, as evidenced by a late Dec 2020 six catch performance. He also has value as a kick returner, another plus in his favor as that position is far from shored up, too. Erickson is hardly the centerpiece of a reconfigured offense, but could make a solid contributor at a very Belichick-friendly price if given the chance.

Now we’re on to Trading SZN, where the list is topped by my #1 Pats offseason WR target.

TRADE

TIM PATRICK - By chance, do you remember the guy who caught a long ball from Drew Locke over Jason McCourty in the opening minute of that game where the Pats sleepwalked their way to a loss vs. the Broncos last fall? OK, well I do, and his name is Tim Patrick. He caught our attention that day with a big effort in the upset, but really emerged the game prior vs. the Jets on TNF with six catches for 113 yards and a tuddy. Patrick made the most of his opportunity in 2020, going from WR4 to de factor WR1 at times on a team loaded with receiving talent. Courtland Sutton was lost for the season early to a knee injury, plus speedy rookies Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler were injured at times, so Patrick stepped up when called upon. Perfect timing for a restricted free agent. But that’s the catch; if a team wants him then it’ll likely cost a second-round draft pick, should that be the likely tag Denver places on him. On a team that has unreal difficulty drafting receivers here’s a chance to snag a potential WR1 in bloom for only a second-round pick. The Pats could sign him to a generous offer sheet, say four years, $30 million, which could force a receiver rich team like Denver to take the pick and let Patrick walk. Win-Win for all parties, if you ask me, or as our own Rob Bradford likes to proffer, “Who says no to this trade?” Pats wanted Emmanuel Sanders years ago, attempted an RFA deal with Pittsburgh but lowballed the offer, Pittsburgh matched, then Sanders ultimately went to Denver and, well, here’s Belichick’s chance to right that wrong.

CHRISTIAN KIRK - A few weeks ago ESPN Pats reporter extraordinaire Mike Reiss suggested a possible wide receiver swap, and it’s bounced around my mind positively since then:

Christian Kirk for N’Keal Harry. If the Cardinals were into this straight up I’d pull the trigger yesterday. Kirk was a star at Texas A&M, leading the Cards to take him in the 2018 first round. Unlike Harry, who has struggled significantly for his first two years, Kirk has flashed at times, but never truly reached his potential, yet. Though there are some who believe he’s in line for a DeVante Parker type breakout. Now that DeAndre Hopkins is entrenched clearly as the Cards #1 for years to come perhaps a chance of scenery would benefit Kirk as it likely would Harry, who played his college ball at Arizona State. The Pats need speed, liked Kirk coming out of college, plus Harry was comped as an Anquan Boldin type. Just saying this could be good for all pass-catching parties.

And now to the option that scares the pants off Pats fans because of recent history. Last year, in a receiver rich crop, Belichick famously took two tight ends in the third round. Now the draft is stocked bountifully yet again with receiver types of all kinds. Let’s see if the Pats can, umm, draft someone who doesn’t suck?

DRAFT

RASHOD BATEMAN, Minnesota

A great all-around talent who opted out late into the 2020 campaign to focus on the draft, Bateman is the real deal and total package, and would look awesome in a throwback Pats red. He uses his size well, has good speed and amazing hands. Some believe the former Minnesota star (hardly the Alabama of the midwest) could go as high as 15th overall to the Patriots, though that seems a bit high by most mock draft standards. Not to mention our apprehension over the Pats going WR in the first round in two of three drafts. Still, any team that drafts him will have a sure-fire ready made pro on their hands.

THE SEC RUNNERS-UP - These SEC schools are remarkable in their ability to find and develop elite wide receivers, and also how they seemingly produce two for every draft, one of which the world buzzes about, the other who gets selected a bit later and still becomes a dynamite pro. In 2020 Alabama saw both Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy selected in the first round. 2021 will likely see DeVonta Smith and Jaylon Waddle both be taken in the first round, which is mind-blowing. No chance Smith, the Heisman winner who might be the best receiver to come out in years if not a decade, falls to the Pats. So Waddle, who is cut from the Tyreek Hill/Henry Ruggs cloth, could fall to them. LSU’s J’Marr Chase is another absolute stud who opted out of 2020, giving his teammate Terrace Marshall a chance to shine in 2020. Marshall could be a great Round 2-3 steal for Pats. And while Florida’s Kadarius Toney was a stat monster last season for the pass-heavy Gators, and will likely be taken in the mid-to-late first round, his teammate Trevon Grimes is a big target who hauled in nine touchdowns and could make a for solid early-to-mid-round target and prospect for a team in receiver need like the Pats. And yes, we know about Belichick and his history with drafting Florida pass catchers. All three of the SEC No. 2's would be welcome additions to Meyers and the No-Name Gang in Foxboro.

Thanks for reading! Next week we’ll switch sides to the defensive front seven. Be well, dream big and Go Pats!