The receiver the Patriots should be targeting is Dez Bryant
As the Patriots continue to rummage through the NFL’s bargain bin of wide receivers for anything usable, their resistance to bringing in out-of-work wideout Dez Bryant becomes more conspicuous.
How desperate do they have to get to give Dez a chance to catch on and catch passes in Foxborough? The Patriots appear to view the former Cowboys star as a receiver of last resort. Bryant sent them a Twitter love letter to sign him Sunday. They swiped left.
The latest recycled receivers to receive a chance to catch passes from Tom Brady are flameout former first-round pick Corey Coleman, he of “Hard Knocks” infamy, and Chicago Bears castoff Bennie Fowler. They were signed Tuesday to fill out a receiving corps that is perilously thin with Julian Edelman serving a four-game PED suspension.
Maybe one of them will be a find. More likely they’re just the best the Patriots can find at the time. Except they’re not; Bryant is.
Bryant has one advantage that players like Coleman, Chad Hansen, and Riley McCarron who have come through the team’s receiver revolving door don’t: proven ability to succeed in the NFL. He may be a declining talent, but he’s a legitimate one.
It’s hard enough to pick up the Patriots offense if you’re an accomplished and decorated NFL pass-catcher, but if you’re a borderline player bouncing from team to team to begin with, the odds of you building a rapport with Brady and sticking around Patriot Place are about the same as coach Bill Belichick becoming an Instagram model.
No matter whom the Patriots bring in now, they’re going to be behind the 8-ball in getting up to speed on a notoriously difficult-to-master offense. So, starting with the baseline of proven NFL ability seems wise.
After the Patriots’ season-opening victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday, I asked former Brady go-to guy and current Texans assistant Wes Welker what it takes to get on the same page with Brady. Welker and Randy Moss remain the gold standard for receivers who came to New England and built an immediate bond with Brady. He said it takes talking and time.
It was pointed out to Welker that he appeared to pick up the offense and a key to Brady’s Circle of Trust almost instantly in 2007. Was that because of his ability to process football or his ability to form a kinship with Brady?
“I think both,” said Welker, who joined the Patriots coming off a 67-catch season in Miami. “I think you continue to have conversations with him over and over again. That was a key factor. I feel like he understands the game so well. I felt like I had a really good grasp for it as well, and so when those two things go together with good ability, you can form something special.”
A key phrase there is “with good ability.” You have to start with that.
Belichick has often said Moss was the smartest receiver he ever coached. Welker possesses an obvious aptitude for the game. No one is going to confuse Bryant with erudite Belichick aide-de-camp Ernie Adams when it comes to football IQ, but if Bryant were given a specific role, he could succeed. There is no coaching staff better at maximizing a player’s strengths and minimizing his weaknesses than the Patriots’.
How much worse could Bryant be than Michael Floyd or Kenny Britt, late-season signings the last two years plugged into limited roles? If Bryant Foxborough flops, how is he any different from other veteran receivers who couldn’t adjust to the Patriots’ sight-adjustment offense like Joey Galloway and Chad (Ochocinco) Johnson or fit their culture like Reggie Wayne and Britt?
Full disclosure: I’ve come around on Bryant. Initially, I was against the move for all the reasons that have been cited. He has a reputation for being disruptive, he is not a precise route-runner, he didn’t play in a complex offense in Dallas, his football IQ has been questioned, his ability to separate is diminishing. But given all that, Bryant still caught 69 passes for 838 yards and six touchdowns last season with Dak Prescott at the helm.
The Patriots have little depth at wide receiver and nothing to lose if Bryant fails here. He has been out of work since April and has little leverage. Since he would be signed after Week 1, his salary would not be fully guaranteed as a veteran.
A reclamation project like Coleman and a depth piece like Fowler are safe. They should be more humble and aware of their football mortality. They should be stripped of their ego. Coleman, who was discarded by the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills in a span of 24 days, was the first receiver selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, taken 15th overall by the Browns. The Patriots have had some success rebuilding another first-round receiver, Phillip Dorsett. Coleman is a bit of a blank canvas. Fowler is a placeholder.
With accomplishment come pride and ego, and Bryant’s would have to be managed. But one of the advantages with the Patriots is that you have such an established and strong culture that you can absorb and rehabilitate recalcitrant players such as Corey Dillon, Moss, and Bryant.
One explanation for Coleman over Bryant has been that Coleman’s field-stretching speed is a better fit. If that’s a need, then why is Cordarrelle Patterson, a burner with limited route-tree capability, here? Dorsett is also a speed threat as a 4.33 40-yard dash guy. What the Patriots lack is a physical wide receiver who can box out defenders and win on slants, jump balls, and back-shoulder throws. That was Britt’s ostensible role. That’s Bryant’s metier.
There’s clearly something about Bryant that gives the Patriots pause. They’ve been dodging Dez since the 2010 draft. The pick the Cowboys used to select Bryant in the first round came from the Patriots.
Bryant has never been viewed as a Boy Scout. Questions about his comportment, demeanor, and decision-making have dogged him since the 2010 NFL Draft process. In 2012, he was charged with domestic violence stemming from an argument with his mother; the charges were later conditionally dismissed. He also illegally owned a pet monkey, drawing the ire of PETA.
But the Patriots had no problem picking up Britt, who had several brushes with the law and multiple arrests, and they claimed Floyd off waivers two days after he was arrested for a “super extreme DUI” in Scottsdale, Ariz., in December of 2016.
Admittedly, Bryant isn’t a perfect fit for the Patriots. But there are no perfect fits out there seeking NFL jobs now. Perhaps Belichick can snooker his disciples in Detroit, general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia, into gift-wrapping him Golden Tate.
But if not, and if the Patriots are just going to keep recycling retreads, Bryant deserves a shot because he has the talent.
As the wide receiver depth chart has evolved — or eroded — the team’s aversion to bringing Bryant aboard has become harder to justify.