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How did it get so bad? Patriots haven’t invested in their skill positions

Other than Julian Edelman, the Patriots have consistently struggled to develop young receivers under Bill Belichick.
Other than Julian Edelman, the Patriots have consistently struggled to develop young receivers under Bill Belichick.Maddie Meyer/Getty

The Patriots enter Sunday’s game at Buffalo ranked 29th in the NFL in scoring (19.2 points per game), but it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

For the second straight year, the Patriots are going to battle each Sunday with popgun weapons.

“Just a lack of speed and separation quickness from the offensive skill guys,” one AFC scout said this past week. “Puts a lot of pressure on the QB in those situations to be consistent and accurate. That seems to be the thought through regular scouting conversations with guys.”

The Patriots' tight ends have the least amount of production of any team for the second straight year (a total of eight catches for 98 yards). Their wide receiver corps features a journeyman, a slow-developing first-round pick, three undrafted players, and a 34-year-old Julian Edelman dealing with a knee injury that required surgery Thursday.

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On top of it, new quarterback Cam Newton isn’t seeing the field or throwing with any sense of anticipation. The Patriots enter Sunday’s game ranked 28th in passing after finishing in the top 10 every year from 2011-19.


How did it get this bad for the Patriots? How did the team that featured Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Edelman become so barren at the skill positions?

The answer is actually simple: The Patriots haven’t tried.

For nearly a decade they have ignored receivers and tight ends in the draft. For the last three years they have avoided high-priced free agents in favor of value. And they have yet to invest real money or a draft pick into a replacement for Tom Brady at quarterback. The Patriots have played the penny slots and are getting penny returns.

Let’s take a look at the Patriots' roster moves of the past three years and how they have not restocked their talent:

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Wide receiver

Josh Gordon was one of many talented skill players the Patriots have acquired and released within the last two years.
Josh Gordon was one of many talented skill players the Patriots have acquired and released within the last two years.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Current lineup: Edelman (knee surgery), N’Keal Harry (concussion), Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Isaiah Zuber.

Subtractions: 2018 — Brandin Cooks (trade), Danny Amendola.

2019 — Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Josh Gordon.

2020 — Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett.

Additions: 2018 — Patterson (trade), Eric Decker (released), Jordan Matthews (released), Corey Coleman (released), Gordon.

2019 — Dorsett, Dontrelle Inman (released), Demaryius Thomas (released), Maurice Harris (released), Bruce Ellington (released), Antonio Brown (released).

2020 — Byrd, Marqise Lee (opt-out).

Draft: 2018 — Braxton Berrios (sixth round).

2019 — Harry (first round), Meyers (undrafted free agent), Olszewski (undrafted free agent).

2020 — Zuber (undrafted free agent).

Analysis: If this were a balance sheet, the Patriots would be swimming in red ink. Too much talent going out, and not nearly enough coming in.

The only offseason signings have been journeyman veterans on minimum-salary contracts, and almost none made the team. The Patriots knew receiver was an issue heading into this year, but their only move was signing Byrd, whose career high is 32 catches for 359 yards, and signing a bunch of undrafted rookies.

After using a second-round pick in 2013 on Aaron Dobson (who was a bust), the Patriots went five straight drafts (2014-18) without using a pick higher than the fourth round on a receiver, and none stuck for more than a year. In 2019, they used a first-round pick on a receiver for the first time in the Bill Belichick era, but may have chosen the wrong player. While Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin are starring across the league, Harry missed half of his rookie season with an injury, and through 13 career games has just 31 catches for 277 yards and three touchdowns.

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Brady became so upset with his receiving corps that the Patriots made several desperation moves — signing Gordon in 2018, signing Brown in 2019, and trading a second-round pick for Sanu in 2019. Gordon produced for a stretch but was ultimately suspended and later released; Brown lasted one game before being released; and Sanu struggled to adapt to the offense, then was released this past offseason.

It has left the Patriots with the worst receiving corps in the league — and now Edelman and Harry are hurt. They need to find more receivers in the top three rounds of the draft, and they need to improve their coaching methods. Other than Edelman, the Patriots have consistently struggled to develop young receivers.

Tight end

Tight end Ryan Izzo has seven catches for 90 yards this season.
Tight end Ryan Izzo has seven catches for 90 yards this season.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Current lineup: Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene.

Subtractions: 2019 — Rob Gronkowski (retired), Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister.

2020 — Benjamin Watson (retired), Matt LaCosse (opt-out).

Additions: 2018 — Troy Niklas (released).

2019 — Watson, LaCosse, Austin Seferian-Jenkins (released), Lance Kendricks (released).

Draft: 2018 — Izzo (seventh round), Hollister (undrafted).

2020 — Asiasi (third round), Keene (third round).

Analysis: The Patriots haven’t spent real money on a free agent tight end, but that’s understandable. There are usually only one or two elite tight ends that enter free agency each year.

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What’s remarkable — in a bad way — is how little effort the Patriots have put into drafting a tight end. Prior to this season, the Patriots had drafted just three tight ends since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — Lee Smith in 2011 (fifth round), A.J. Derby in 2015 (sixth round), and Izzo in 2018 (seventh round, pick 250 out of 256).

To be fair, tight end is one of the most complicated positions in the Patriots' offense. And with Brady in his later years, the Patriots understandably preferred veterans at the No. 2 position next to Gronk — Scott Chandler, Martellus Bennett, and Allen. But it is baffling that the Patriots never drafted a tight end to develop behind their two veterans.

Now they’re stuck with Izzo as their top tight end, and two rookies in Asiasi and Dalton who have yet to do anything in the NFL. Hopefully one of them pans out.

Quarterback

Cam Newton has been a welcome addition to the Patriots this season, but the team hasn't committed to drafting a quarterback high up in the draft in many years. Jarrett Stidham was chosen in the fourth round in 2019.
Cam Newton has been a welcome addition to the Patriots this season, but the team hasn't committed to drafting a quarterback high up in the draft in many years. Jarrett Stidham was chosen in the fourth round in 2019.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Current lineup: Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer.

Subtractions: 2019 — Hoyer.

2020 — Brady.

Additions: 2020 — Newton, Hoyer.

Draft: 2019 — Stidham (fourth round).

Analysis: Newton, Stidham, and Hoyer are all playing for about $1 million or less, and the Patriots are getting what they paid for. The Patriots are 28th in passing yards per game (197.2), and 32nd in passing touchdowns (three) and interceptions (11).

Just like at tight end, the Patriots haven’t invested any high draft picks in quarterbacks, even though it has been an obvious need.

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They didn’t draft anyone in 2018 after trading Jimmy Garoppolo, and they didn’t draft anyone in 2020 after losing Brady. The only pick they have used is a fourth-rounder on Stidham in 2019, and other than Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins, fourth-round quarterbacks usually don’t turn into starting quarterbacks. The fact that Stidham started the season as the No. 3, and still can’t supplant a struggling Newton as the starter, is telling.

“He is talented, but definitely needed time to develop coming out,” the AFC scout said.

Even if Newton and Stidham return in 2021, the Patriots badly need to invest a first- or second-round pick in a quarterback.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.