fb-pixel Skip to main content

Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio swears that the transition from college football to the NFL is difficult for all positions, not just wide receiver.

“I don’t care where you played, you’re making a significant jump from college football to NFL football,” Caserio said. “Some offensive linemen have never been in a three-point stance. There are some programs, honest to God, that throw the ball 75 times per game. They’ve never run-blocked in their entire life.

“I’d say the offensive line, they have as many demands and challenges as any skill player — change in protections, making adjustments at the line of scrimmage late in the play clock, you have to get the communication from the center to the guard out to the tackle, we’re going to go from one protection to this protection, we’re going to go from a run play to a pass play.”

Advertisement



OK, but the Patriots’ track record of developing and getting immediate production out of offensive linemen is pretty good. Guard Shaq Mason played well last season in 14 games (10 starts) as a rookie, and the Patriots have produced quality linemen, including Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Matt Light, and many others.

Their track record of drafting and developing wide receivers, however, is not so good. Hitting on draft picks is usually no better than a 50-50 proposition, and every team is going to have flops, but the Patriots can’t seem to get it right when it comes to finding Tom Brady a young, talented wide receiver in the draft.

The Patriots don’t need a rookie receiver to contribute immediately, as they still have Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and signed fifth-year pro Chris Hogan to take Brandon LaFell’s spot. But they certainly could use a young, talented receiver to groom for 2017 and beyond, especially with Edelman prone to injuries and turning 30 in May, and Amendola’s long-term future with the Patriots uncertain.

Advertisement



Historically, wide receiver has been one of the toughest positions to project from college to the pros, and especially with today’s college game, in which so many teams run spread offenses with simple passing concepts that do not translate to the NFL.

“We have two issues,” said former Steelers running back Merril Hoge, now an ESPN analyst. “One, these guys don’t know how to read coverage or identify things. Whatever you saw in college was so vanilla. Then we have to teach you how to run a route, and then you’ve got to respond immediately based on what he saw and you’ve got to see it. It’s very difficult.

“This is why these interviews are important, why the investigative work is important. You’ve got to be smart to transition to the NFL, and if you struggle with concepts and understanding things, whatever athletic skill set you have it is neutralized by the thought process and all the things you’re consumed with mentally.”

The Patriots’ track record with free agent and veteran receivers — Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and LaFell among them — is certainly much better than it is with rookies.

The Patriots have selected 13 wide receivers in 16 drafts under Bill Belichick, and only three can be considered successes: 2002 second-round pick Deion Branch, a four-year starter and a Super Bowl MVP; 2002 seventh-round pick David Givens, who caught 149 passes in a three-year span and helped win two Super Bowls; and Julian Edelman, a 2009 seventh-round pick who contributed little during his first four years but came out of nowhere in 2013 to replace Welker and establish himself as one of the best slot receivers in the NFL.

Advertisement



The rest of the list is dismal. Bethel Johnson, a second-rounder in 2003, had a career-high 16 catches as a rookie and was traded to the Saints after three seasons. Chad Jackson, a second-rounder in 2006, was released after 14 games in two seasons. A couple of third-rounders — Brandon Tate in 2009 and Taylor Price in 2010 — were released after two seasons with the Patriots.

Late-round picks P.K. Sam (2004, fifth round), Matthew Slater (2008, fifth round), Jeremy Ebert (2012, seventh round), and Jeremy Gallon (2014, seventh round) didn’t pan out, although Slater has made five Pro Bowls as a special teamer.

And the Patriots’ 2013 wide receiver class, which seemed promising at the time, is on the verge of bust territory.

Fourth-rounder Josh Boyce, taken 42 picks ahead of productive receiver Kenny Stills, was released after two-plus seasons and is now with the Colts. Second-round pick Aaron Dobson, taken ahead of Terrance Williams and Keenan Allen, is still with the Patriots but is facing a make-or-break training camp in the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. Dobson has just 16 catches for 179 yards the last two years, hasn’t scored a touchdown since 2013, and isn’t guaranteed a roster spot this fall.

Advertisement



Why have the Patriots had so many busts? Is it due to their inability to identify the right receivers from college and giving them poor coaching once they arrive in Foxborough?

Certainly the Patriots can improve in those areas, but the complexity of the offense, and the demands Brady puts on his receivers, likely have much more to do with their lack of success with youngsters.

“I would say I’m not the easiest guy to play with,” Brady acknowledged in January. “I think there are a lot of high expectations, and I try to put a lot of pressure on everybody to get the best out of us.”

“He expects you to be exactly where he wants you to be every route,” LaFell said early in 2014, his first season with the Patriots. “Not a yard off, not a yard too deep, not a yard too short. He expects you to be exactly where he wants you to be because he’s going to put the ball placement exactly right.”

LaFell, who spent four years with Carolina before coming to New England, actually caught on quickly with Brady, and set career highs across the board in 2014, playing a key role in the Super Bowl run. In training camp that year, he explained how difficult it is to adapt to the Patriots offense.

“First things first, you’ve got to learn formations,” LaFell said then. “Man, we’ve got a million formations, and we’ve got a million personnel groups. And second, learning the terms of the plays that we use and different code words we use, because one play I can be the X receiver and if we go to a hurry-up offense, depending on where the ball is spotted, I can be the Z receiver the next play.

Advertisement



“I have to know the whole play, but first, learning the formations, personnel groups, second, learning the plays and the concepts and just go from there with it.”

The Patriots and Brady ask more of their receivers than most teams in terms of reading coverages on the fly and knowing how to adjust a route and be on the same page with Brady.

“You can’t be — I don’t want to say a dumb football player — but if you don’t know coverages, you might as well go somewhere else,” said former Patriots receiver Brian Tyms, who spent time with the 49ers, Dolphins, and Browns before coming to New England.

“Usually, in most offenses, the receiver’s job is simple. It’s like, ‘OK, if it’s Cover 2, I’ve got this. If it’s off, I’ve got this. If it’s man, I’ve got this.’

“But in this offense, it’s like, ‘If this dude comes [on a blitz], I’ve got this. If the linebacker floats under me, I have this now. If it’s Cover 2, I have this that converts to this if the corner keeps funneling with me.’ You’ve got to think as you go.”

If the Patriots do want a young receiver to develop this year, Hoge believes Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd, a second- or third-round candidate, could be a good fit.

“When you watch him, he looks like a pro — can run routes, identify coverage, get in and out of breaks, and has instincts,” Hoge said.

“When you enter into an offense with Tom Brady and you’ve got a bunch of guys who have played with him for a long time, you have a very small room for error mentally. Oftentimes you get ruined mentally way before you get ruined physically.”


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