Can the Draft Save the Patriots?
By Tom Keegan
FOXBORO -- The longer the New England Patriots’ fifth loss dragged on, the older and staler the team seemed Sunday at Heinz Field, where it felt more like the Patriots lost, 17-10, than the Steelers won.
The last time the Patriots had as many as five losses in a season, 2009, they rebounded with a strong draft. They’ll need to do the same this coming spring to prevent the decline from hastening, although it still could get worse before it gets better, depending on Tom Brady’s gas gauge.
The 2010 draft yielded defensive back Devin McCourty in the first round, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski (second round) and the late Aaron Hernandez (fourth round), a great pick until he became an awful one.
Nine years later, the Patriots have no shortage of draft choices, but getting back on top is a steeper challenge now than then, when they had a once-in-a-generation quarterback in his prime.
The Patriots likely will have six selections in the first three rounds, including two projected third-round compensatory picks, plus the Bears’ second-round choice. Also, they own the Lions’ third-rounder instead of their own. They also have a couple of extra projected seventh-round picks.
Watching JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington make spectacular sideline catches Sunday while blanketed by defenders served as a reminder of what the Patriots lack: young, fresh bodies brimming with outrageous athleticism.
Washington didn’t have much of a rookie season going until he broke out with four catches for 65 yards. He showed so much talent vs. the Patriots that the Steelers need not regret taking him, especially considering that Mason Rudolph, Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent, was Washington’s quarterback in college.
In his second season out of USC, Smith-Schuster already has amassed 2,191 receiving yards, although the Patriots limited him to 40 yards on four catches. Smith-Schuster was the 62nd pick in 2017, Washington the 60th in 2018.
The Patriots haven’t had much success when spending that high of a pick on a receiver, but it could be time to give it another shot. It’s definitely time to retool the system they use to evaluate prospects at that position.
Chosen 59th overall in 2013, Aaron Dobson lasted just three seasons and caught 53 passes. All four of his touchdowns came as a rookie. In 2008, Bethel Johnson was chosen 45th and spent three seasons as a return man with the Patriots, one with the Vikings.
Deion Branch, MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, spent nearly seven seasons with the Patriots in two stints, and was with the Seahawks for three seasons and change. In 2005 with the Patriots, Branch reached career-high totals in receptions (78), yards (998) and TDs (five). His career justified his draft position, which makes him the exception.
Of the 15 receivers the Patriots have drafted this century, only Julian Edelman, a converted quarterback taken in the seventh round, has been more productive than Branch.
The Patriots gambled on Malcolm Mitchell’s knees. It paid off in the short term when he had a productive rookie season capped by his big role in the comeback against the Falcons in the Super Bowl, but knee troubles kept him from playing beyond that game.
The Patriots’ round-by-round, 21st-century draft choices used on players listed at wide receiver, some of whom were targeted and used as return men:
First round: None.
Second round: Branch (2002), Johnson (2008), Dobson (2013).
Third round: Brandon Tate (2009), Taylor Price (2010).
Fourth round: Josh Boyce (2013), Mitchell (2016).
Fifth round: P.K. Sam (2004), Matthew Slater (2008).
Sixth round: Braxton Berrios (2018).
Seventh round: David Givens (2002), Edelman (2009), Jeremy Ebert (2012), Jeremy Gallon (2014), Devin Lucien (2016).
Receiver is far from the only position of need, and not even the most pressing, which is tight end. Finding a Gene Bartow to be named later at quarterback ranks high, as does drafting upgrades at linebacker and defensive line.
Loud, young talent, particularly at skill positions, can energize an aging roster. Regardless of how this season ends, it’s needed. Wide receiver can’t be ignored among the long list of positions in need of renewal.