Commentary

Can Bill Belichick make connection?

Patriots have need at receiver, but recent draft history at position is spotty

Updated: April 25, 2013, 2:58 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Unlike last year, when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick shocked many by trading up twice in the first round -- first to grab defensive end Chandler Jones and then for linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- such a move appears highly unlikely for the club when the 2013 NFL draft kicks off Thursday night (ESPN, 8 ET).

The stronger likelihood, barring an unexpected development in which one of the top-rated players slides to pick No. 29, is a trade down to accumulate more selections.

It appears the Patriots view this draft like many of the NFL's other 31 clubs -- short on star power and surefire difference-makers in the first round, with the primary value its depth into the second round. Because of this, as well as the Patriots being limited by uncharacteristically owning just five selections (first, second, third and two sevenths), it's not a stretch to think that one of the primary goals will be to trade out of the first round for additional picks if they can find a dance partner.

That's the first storyline to monitor closely. Belichick, a.k.a. Trader Bill, has swung 50 draft-day trades in his 13 drafts with New England, and it wouldn't be surprising if Thursday's first round comes to an end with the Patriots not having made a selection.

The second storyline, and more compelling from this viewpoint, is at what point the Patriots dive into the wide receiver pool, and if they can reverse their recent struggles of drafting and developing at the position.

There are signs they intend to do so, starting with this: NFL teams are allowed up to 30 visits with out-of-town prospects at their facility before the draft, and about 25 percent of the Patriots' visitors this year were receivers. While a pre-draft visit doesn't always indicate legitimate interest, the fact the Patriots placed such a heavy emphasis on the position at a time they were finalizing their draft board shouldn't be dismissed. That's a lot of smoke.

Then there was the offer sheet to Pittsburgh Steelers restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders, which was matched by the Steelers, serving as another indication of the team's intentions to address the receiving corps.

And finally, there is the cyclical nature of the draft, coupled with the makeup of the present depth chart, which indicates that it's time for the club to strongly consider an early-round pick at receiver. After essentially passing over every receiver in the draft the past two years (they selected long shot Jeremy Ebert in the 2012 seventh round), and missing on 2010 third-round pick Taylor Price, it sets the stage for the Patriots to address the position this year with a class that is considered deep.

This has been the pattern at other positions in recent years.

From 2007-09, the Patriots didn't select a tight end in the draft and then double-dipped in 2010 with Rob Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth round).

And from 2008-10, the Patriots didn't select a running back in the draft and then double-dipped in 2011 with Shane Vereen (second round) and Stevan Ridley (third round).

[+] EnlargeRobert Woods
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireAlthough he doesn't have top-end speed, Robert Woods is a first-round possibility.

So put it all together and this is where the greatest intrigue arguably lies for the Patriots in what is widely viewed as a "ho-hum" draft because of its lack of stars. With at least one of their top selections, they appear headed toward a receiver, a position in which they have had some of their poorest results (and some would say having one of the highest bust rates).

Belichick has acknowledged some of the struggles in projecting college receivers into the NFL, saying, "I think the college passing game is a lot different than the (pro) passing game -- pass protection, pass rush, pass execution and pass defense. We all look at the same film. We're all trying to evaluate the same players.

"But it's a lot easier to watch a guy in the NFL perform and translate his skills for your team than watch a guy in college perform because of the discrepancy in the passing game. It's nobody's fault. That's just the way it is."

Yet Belichick's viewpoint isn't shared by all. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, for one, sees a greater linkage between the college and pro passing games.

"Due to the amount of spread (offenses) played in college … it makes the evaluation an easier one than if you didn't have that visual reference," said Tomlin, whose club has struck big in recent years with receivers Mike Wallace (third round, 2009), Sanders (third round, 2010) and Antonio Brown (sixth round, 2010).

"There are a number of guys available in the draft with in-game catch experience. The way the ball is thrown in college football, guys have a unique reference from an experience standpoint; there are a number of receivers that have caught a lot of footballs in game-like situations."

The Patriots have studied them all closely this year, working many of them out privately and bringing in a group that included Southern Cal's Robert Woods, California's Keenan Allen, Marshall's Aaron Dobson, Texas Christian's Josh Boyce, Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton, Oklahoma's Kenny Stills and Oregon State's Markus Wheaton, among others, to Gillette Stadium for personal visits.

There are no Calvin Johnsons, A.J. Greens or Julio Joneses in this year's class, but each prospect has traits that are potentially intriguing to clubs.

Woods, for example, is considered a smooth route-runner, even though he doesn't have top-end speed. He's viewed as a late first- to second-round choice. Allen, another late first- to second-round projection who didn't time well in the 40-yard dash, has been compared to Anquan Boldin by some analysts.

Dobson, who projects to fall in the second- to-third-round range, is one of the bigger receivers in the draft, but there are questions about him running a limited route tree. The heady Boyce, another mid-round projection, has an ideal height-weight-speed combination but had declining production over his college career. Patton, a likely second- to third-rounder, is strong after the catch and a good blocker but doesn't come out of a sophisticated offense. Stills can fly but isn't viewed as a complete route-runner. Wheaton, who projects to land in the second round, is one of the fastest receivers in the draft but is considered undersized.

Others, such as the Tennessee duo of Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, have big-time potential, yet like the others there is a "but" attached to their scouting report.

Which receiver fits best? This is part of the intrigue because if the Patriots don't come away from the draft with a young target, they run the risk of short-changing one of their best assets, quarterback Tom Brady. Make no mistake, they would still be a contender, but the offense could be easier to defend than Belichick desires. Yes, they could delve into free agency if all else fails, but based on what's available, the draft represents a better chance to land a top receiver if they can make the right projection.

Having regularly preferred free agency and trades to fill the receiver void in recent years, this is a spot the Patriots don't typically find themselves in. They haven't selected a receiver in the first round under Belichick, and in his 13 New England drafts, more tight ends (12) have been picked than receivers (10).

By the end of this year's draft, that could change.

It might not be with their top selection, but at some point in the early-to-middle rounds it sure looks like the Patriots will be selecting a receiver.

Based on their spotty history at the position, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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