The NFL draft is a time of year filled with misinformation and myths. The idea that the Patriots have struggled drafting wide receivers and corners exclusively because they’ve tabbed the wrong players is both.
The process of bringing in young talent doesn’t end with the draft. It starts there. With enough strikeouts at wide receiver and corner to make Rob Deer blush, the Patriots hopefully have reevaluated both their approach to drafting and player development at those positions.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots have the 29th pick in the draft, which starts Thursday night. The last time the Patriots picked 29th was 1997, pre-BB. They drafted Chris Canty, a cornerback who had little to celebrate but did so excessively anyway.
Some players such as Canty simply arrive in Foxborough with their NFL careers stillborn. But the formative pro football period for a draft pick is important. Rare are the players who arrive ready to be plugged in right out of the box. Most players take some setup and programming to succeed.
It turns out that corners and wide receivers are tougher to program for the Patriots than that pesky clock in Belichick’s car a few years ago.
The Patriots have stockpiled cornerbacks like a survivalist does canned goods, selecting a corner in either of the first two rounds of the draft five straight years from 2007 to 2011. Brandon Meriweather was drafted in 2007 to play corner and ended up back at safety.
There has been a trend of corners drafted by the Patriots showing some promise in their rookie year and then regressing.
The common refrain to absolve coaching — specifically cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer — of any blame is that none of the erstwhile New England cover boys succeeded elsewhere.
But if we’re going to dismiss the idea that instruction can make a difference to positional success, then we have to stop crediting crusty offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for his offensive line alchemy. Scarnecchia has molded long-shot lumps of clay like Stephen Neal, Dan Connolly, and Ryan Wendell into starting offensive linemen.
Coaching matters in developing players, so does scheme. The Patriots decided to switch to more man coverage in 2011, a scheme change that transformed Devin McCourty from a Pro Bowl corner in 2010 rookie to a picked-on one thereafter.
Complexity of scheme is part of the Patriots’ problems at wide receiver, where they haven’t selected a true starting-caliber player since taking Deion Branch (second round) and David Givens (seventh round) in the 2002 draft. Sorry, Julian Edelman doesn’t apply.
The best rookie season by a wide receiver in the Tom Brady-Belichick era was Branch, who caught 43 passes for 489 yards and two touchdowns in 2002. Givens had nine catches his rookie season in 12 games.
Two years ago at a promotional appearance for Under Armour, Brady explained why it can be so difficult for a receiver to grasp his passes and the Patriots’ offense.
“The interesting thing about playing receiver on our team is it is a very challenging position, especially to be a young player,” said Brady. “There are a lot of different routes and route combinations and adjustments. I can signal the route and then it adjusts.
“It takes a year, two years, three years. The best receiver that I played with as a rookie was Deion Branch. He was really a third, fourth receiver his rookie year. I could tell that he was going to be an exceptional talent, but he didn’t contribute the same way that he did in his third or fourth year.”
The Patriots can’t afford to wait three years and neither can Brady, who turns 36 in August. With all the problems they’ve had assimilating wideouts it’s rather peculiar that they brushed aside a receiver who was able to master Brady and the playbook from Day 1 — Wes Welker.
The receivers the Patriots have selected weren’t smart enough (Bethel Johnson), mature enough (Chad Jackson), good enough (Brandon Tate), or able to transition from a simplistic college offense to the Patriots’ advanced theory passing attack (Taylor Price).
Perhaps, part of the problem is TB12 himself. Talk to any of his former receivers and they’ll tell you he is exacting and demanding.
Brady shows little tolerance or patience for those who don’t mirror his encyclopedic knowledge of the playbook. He doesn’t always appear to be completely receptive to receivers having a learning curve.
I asked Brady in 2011 if he gave Price any special dispensation because he had come to the Patriots from an option-based offense at Ohio University, a system that was like cave writing compared to the Patriots’ intricate passing attack. He didn’t have to answer. The disapproving look he gave me said it all.
Asking a wide-eyed kid out of college to immediately grasp the 13 years of institutional knowledge Brady has accrued in the Patriots’ offense is like demanding someone who just passed pre-algebra to start working on quantum physics.
Since it’s practically mandatory in all matters quarterback let’s compare Brady to Peyton Manning.
Manning is known to be every bit as exacting and critical as Brady when it comes to orchestrating his passing attack. Yet, it seems that no matter who you throw at Manning he can throw to him.
Broncos wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas both topped 1,000 yards receiving and hauled in double-digit touchdown catches in Manning’s first year in Denver.
With the Colts, Manning coaxed production from unremarkable, undrafted receivers like Terrence Wilkins and Blair White, late-round draft picks Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, and first- and second-rounders Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, and Jerome Pathon.
Time is of the essence for Brady and the Patriots to find and develop young players who can catch his passes and ones who can prevent opposing quarterbacks from having theirs caught with regularity.
The Patriots can’t afford to drop the ball drafting and developing corners or receivers anymore.