Tuesday was a quiet first day of free agency for the Patriots, the biggest buzz linking them to a former Kent State quarterback turned NFL wide receiver. And we’re not talking about Julian Edelman, the team’s own free agent who is on the open market for the first time in his career.
The name that was most discussed in reports is longtime Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs, who like Edelman transitioned positions successfully after his days as the Golden Flash's signal caller.
Cribbs, who will turn 30 in June, was named to his third Pro Bowl last season as a kick returner, an area in which he has excelled during his career. His eight career kickoff returns for touchdowns are tied for an NFL record, and he's added three more punt returns for a touchdown. His work in Cleveland earned him a spot on the NFL's All-Decade team for the 2000s.
His most productive offensive year came in 2011, when he finished with 41 receptions for 518 yards and four touchdowns, but Cribbs was limited to just seven catches last season.
Here's a brief scouting report on Cribbs both as an offensive and special teams player.
Alignment. Cribbs aligned as a "Z" receiver for Cleveland, which most often places him on the perimeter of the formation to the tight end side (one yard off the line of scrimmage). As previously mentioned, his role in 2012 was limited on offense, but he has previously been used as a "Wildcat" quarterback and on jet motion across the formation for wide receiver sweeps.
Skills. Cribbs has very good quickness, good initial burst and good straight-line speed. He's a sufficient route runner, but doesn't run an extensive tree. He is at his best on routes that come back toward the line of scrimmage, as he is able to use his length and frame (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) to leverage and wall off defenders. He has short, choppy steps at the top of his routes and doesn't extend from defensive backs, but can win in competitive catch situations with his frame. He has a tendency to let the ball come close to his chest before catching it, but has reliable hands on the whole. He's not an elite change-of-direction player, but he has very good contact strength and can take on hits in the open field.
Roles. This is where Cribbs has excelled throughout his career, and not just as a gifted returner. He has been a sensational coverage player on special teams, highlighted by 70 tackles during his first four seasons. He can play on the kickoff coverage team and has the skills and toughness to work as a gunner as well. Of course, he's also a punt and kickoff returner.
Skills. Unlike many of the best returners in today's NFL, Cribbs is not an elite speed player. He has very good speed and ability to separate when a path clears, but it's his ability to see lanes, break tackles and avoid contact that make him unique. He has an excellent spin move to dodge tacklers and is tough with the football in his hands. He has good instincts and was one of the best return men in the NFL last season. He averaged 27.4 yards per kick return (fourth in the NFL) and 12 yards per punt return (sixth).
Based off of a film study of Cribbs, he offers depth for the Patriots at wide receiver and would be a core special teams player. If Wes Welker and Edelman are retained, Cribbs would sit behind both on the depth chart, but Josh McDaniels would likely find ways to get creative with his skill set. He's not an every-down receiver, but he's a chess piece who can be used in specific roles.
On special teams, Cribbs would give the Patriots a ready-made return option on both punts and kickoffs. Jeff Demps figures to factor into that equation as well, and certainly holds the edge from a speed perspective. Cribbs can play on core special teams units as well, although not at the same level that he was at early in his career (his impact was much like Matthew Slater's today).
While not a splashy pickup, Cribbs is a dependable veteran who would add value in two phases of the game.