Just How Bad Are the Patriots At Drafting Offensive Skill Players?

After an impressive start in their first three games in which the Patriots beat the Dolphins 21-11, narrowly lost at Seattle 35-30, then beat the Raiders 36-20, in their last three games, the New England Patriots have scored 10, 12 and 6 points against the Chiefs, Broncos and 49ers respectively.

The Patriots offense is completely inept right now. While Cam Newton hasn’t been great since his Covid diagnosis (before the Chiefs game), and while the Chiefs game was at the time excused due to the fact that Newton was out and Hoyer/Stidham filling in for him were terrible, by this point it looks like the low offensive scoring output in that game was not an anomaly.

They are terrible on offense. Now, it must be mentioned that the Patriots were hit especially hard by preseason player opt-outs. On offense, they lost TE Matt LaCosse, RB Brandon Bolden, two offensive linemen including starting T Marcus Cannon, FB Danny Vitale, and WR Marquise Lee. While the opt-outs hurt, none of their skill guys that opted out were big-time difference makers. It’s not as if someone like Julian Edelman opted out.

The problem is that the Patriots’ skill players just are not that good. Last year, Brady defenders pointed out that the Patriots’ pass catchers ranked last in the league in separation. And it’s the same exact situation this year:

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, which uses player-tracking devices to assess separation, 29.5% of the targets to Patriots receivers have been thrown into a tight window (one yard or less). That’s the highest rate of any wide receiver unit in the NFL.

And it’s not going to get any better in week 8.

This weekend against the Bills, the Patriots will be without both Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry at wide receiver, and will be rolling out Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Myers and Gunner Olzewski. This might be the worst WR corps to take the field anywhere in the league this week.

Offensively, the Pats rank 29th in the league in points scored, and 24th in yardage. Passing, they have the third-fewest attempts in the league and rank 28th in yards. The only bright spot for them is that they are a top-5 rushing offense. But it hasn’t been enough to get it done.

At tight end, the Patriots were once a team that featured Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, possibly the best tight end combo in league history. Though Hernandez’s career was brief as we all know, Gronk is arguably the greatest tight end ever.

Prior to week 6–so through 5 games–the Patriots tight ends combined for 6 catches, 82 yards. All of those catches were from Ryan Izzo, though. That was worst in the league, and they remain at the bottom right now. The Patriots’ tight ends are abysmal this season. It’s not like Cam Newton doesn’t like tight ends, either: throughout his 9 seasons in Carolina, his favorite and most reliable target was Greg Olsen. The Patriots just don’t have talent on offense.

It’s why people started believing Brady was washed up last year. It’s likely why Brady left for the far greener offensive pastures of Tampa Bay. They simply have no playmakers on offense.

So why is this? Why do the Patriots have such little offensive talent?

It has to be the draft. When Belichick took N’Keal Harry at the end of the first round in 2019, people pointed out that it was the first time he had drafted a a wide receiver in the first round during his entire tenure in New England, which dates back to 2000.

If we look at the Patriots’ best pass catchers of the Belichick era, I think we can all agree that the list consists of Gronk, Randy Moss, Julian Edelman and Wes Welker. Deion Branch would round out the top 5. Brandin Cooks could be included even though he was only on the team for a year. You could also throw Antonio Brown in there despite the fact that he only played one game. He looked phenomenal in that game and would have easily been one of their top-5 pass catchers had he been able to stick around. I guess you could also include Aaron Hernandez.

After those eight, the talent level really drops off.

Of these eight guys, four were drafted by Belichick (Gronk, Edelman, Branch, Hernandez) and four were either free agent signings or trades (Moss, Cooks, Welker, AB).

The Patriots have simply not been effective at drafting offensive talent, especially lately. Only one of their four best offensive draft picks is still on the team, Julian Edelman, who is now 34 and heading to Injured Reserve.

What we are seeing in 2020 is the bill coming due for the team’s inability to draft offensive talent, specifically wide receivers. Let’s dig into it:

  • From 2010-2019, Bill Belichick has drafted 41 offensive players compared to 46 defensive players. This is pretty balanced and it’s what you want to see. Of those offensive players, 19 were skill guys while the other 22 were either linemen or QBs. The problem, though, is not that they haven’t drafted enough offensive skill players, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of them were busts. It would be one thing if these guys had turned into solid role players, but most of them didn’t even manage to do that.
  • I’ll go over the names of all 9 WRs the Patriots drafted between 2010-2019 (I’m not going to include the 2020 draft because the Patriots didn’t select any WRs this year). Round and year will be in parentheses: N’Keal Harry (1, 2019), Braxton Berrios (6, 2018), Malcolm Mitchell (4, 2016), Devin Lucien (7, 2016), Jeremy Gallon (7, 2014), Aaron Dobson (2, 2013), Josh Boyce (4, 2013), Jeremy Ebert (7, 2012), Taylor Price (3, 2010).
  • 9 wide receivers drafted last decade, and not a single one of them was any good. The jury may still be out on Harry, but many would consider him a disappointment already. According to NBC Sports, the Patriots’ 9 WR draft picks have combined for 114 catches and 1,423 yards in their careers.
  • Only three WR picks in the first three rounds for the Patriots. It clearly has not been a position Belichick has emphasized in the draft. Maybe he was confident that Brady could turn any wide receiver into a star, or maybe he just figured he could shore up the position via free agency. I’m not totally sure what the reason is. But the bottom line is that the Patriots may be the worst team in the league at drafting wide receivers. The last WR they drafted that panned out was Julian Edelman, who they took in the 7th round in 2009. They really lucked out with him because as you probably know, he played quarterback in college.

To really twist the knife, let’s go over some high-quality offensive players that the Patriots have missed out on since 2010. There’s a lot of them:

  • While it’s not fair to render a verdict on N’Keal Harry just yet, the fact remains that the 2019 draft class was pretty stacked at WR. Several guys from that draft class are already producing at a high level, and all of them were selected after the Patriots took Harry (Harry was the 2nd WR off the board, Hollywood Brown was the first at pick 25). AJ Brown went at pick 51, just six picks after the Pats took CB Joejuan Williams (who is listed currently as a backup for them). DK Metcalf went at pick 64. Diontae Johnson was pick 66. Terry McLaurin went at pick 76. Scotty Miller went in the 6th round. The Pats selected a punter, Jake Bailey, in the 5th round at pick 163. While Bailey is currently their starting punter, they could’ve had Darius Slayton, who went at pick 171. That’s six guys who are currently better than Harry, yet went after him in the draft.
  • In 2018, the Patriots took CB Duke Dawson 5 picks ahead of DJ Chark in the 2nd round. And while this isn’t a WR whiff, it’s worth noting that the Patriots drafted Sony Michel in the first round at pick 31. Michel had a decent rookie season, but injuries have largely derailed his career at this point. The worst part of it is, the Patriots could have had Michel’s backfield buddy from Georgia, Nick Chubb, who was drafted by Cleveland just four picks after Michel at 35 in the second round. This has got to hurt.
  • In 2017, the Pats didn’t draft any offensive skill players. But they missed out on some good ones. They took DE Derek Rivers, who is currently listed as a second string outside linebacker, at pick 83 which was their earliest selection of that draft. The very next pick was Chris Godwin. The Patriots had pick 85 and took Antonio Garcia, an OT who is not even on a team right now. The pick immediately after him was Kareem Hunt. Plus, Kenny Golladay went at pick 96. And to top it off for 2017, they took a DE named Deatrich Wise at pick 131 (currently listed as a second-stringer), while George Kittle came off the board at pick 146. This is absolutely brutal.
  • They didn’t really miss out on any good offensive players in 2016 in terms of guys who were drafted in close proximity to other Pats picks. But Malcom Mitchell and Devin Lucien, their 2 WR picks that year, were clearly busts.
  • In 2015, the Pats took Safety Jordan Richards at pick 64. Richards is now on the Ravens. Pick 69 was Tyler Lockett. They took Shaq Mason at pick 131, Stefon Diggs went at 146. But it’s unfair to knock them for this pick because Mason has been their starting guard for five years.
  • 2014: They took Jimmy Garoppolo at pick 62, and Jarvis Landry went at pick 63. Garoppolo only played 4 games for the Patriots, and although Belichick wanted to make him the starter after 2017 before being ultimately overruled by Robert Kraft, I think everyone would agree that even today Tom Brady is still a better QB than Jimmy G. You can’t view this as anything other than a blown pick. The good news for the Pats in 2014 is that they took James White in the 4th round. The bad news is he’s probably been their best offensive draft pick since 2014.
  • In 2013 they took WR Aaron Dobson at pick 59. Travis Kelce was pick 63. Although it’s tough to fault them for not drafting a tight end when they had Prime Gronk at that point. It was really a matter of bad timing: the 2013 draft was in late April, and Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder on June 26, 2013. So at the time of the draft, the Patriots, who were huge on the two-TE sets at that time, didn’t know that they were going to lose Hernandez. Had Hernandez been arrested before the draft, it’s possible the Pats would’ve considered Kelce.
  • In 2012, the Patriots took Arkansas DE Jake Bequette in the third round at pick 90. The Colts took TY Hilton two picks later. Bequette played a total of 8 games for New England over three seasons was out of the league after 2014.
  • In 2011, the Pats took RB Shane Vereen at pick 56. Torrey Smith went 2 picks later, and Randall Cobb went 8 picks after Vereen.
  • 2010 was probably their best offensive draft class. They took Gronk in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the 4th. However, it was not perfect: took DE Jermaine Cunningham at pick 53, and Golden Tate went off the board at pick 60. Cunningham played three unspectacular seasons in New England and was out of the league by 2014.

You can’t realistically expect any team to nail every draft pick. Drafting is hard. But there are so many names the Patriots missed out on since 2010. Even if they had gotten just one or two of these guys–let’s say Jarvis Landry in 2014, or Chris Godwin in 2017. That would be huge for them right now.

It’s important to also note that the Patriots won three Super Bowls over the past decade in spite of their inability to draft offensive talent. But that’s kind of beside the point: we’re talking about why the Patriots’ offense is so bad right now.

I doubt anyone in New England wants to live in the past, most of all Bill Belichick.

He was able to get away with being unable to draft offensive talent for a long time because he had Tom Brady. But now Brady’s gone and it’s revealed just how bare the cupboard is in New England.

People have tried to make the case that rookie WRs have it especially hard being on the Patriots given how complex their offensive system is, plus their rigorous and demanding organizational culture. Not just anyone can thrive on the Patriots.

Still, though, you’d expect at least one of their WR draft picks to have panned out by this point.

And if the New England system is the reason none of these guys have succeeded, then why didn’t any of those WRs fare better on other teams? It could be because their confidence is shot after flaming out in New England, but you have to figure that if any of these guys were genuinely good players, some other team would figure out how to turn at least one of them into a producer.

It’s hard to see the Patriots offense getting better anytime soon unless N’Keal Harry takes a massive leap and lives up to his first-round draft spot. Belichick simply does not draft offensive skill players well, wide receiver most of all. Until he starts drafting skill players better, the Patriots are going to be an offensive wasteland.

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