News of the Patriots’ trade for Josh Gordon broke not long after reports floated that the Browns were looking to deal Gordon to an NFC team.
The logical explanation for why they didn’t is that other teams weren’t willing to beat the conditional fifth-round draft pick New England gave up for the talented and troubled receiver.
“We’ll just have to see how it goes,” Bill Belichick said on a Tuesday conference call, declining to speak further on Gordon before the NFL confirmed the trade.
The trade was processed later in the afternoon after Gordon passed his physical.
Why were the typically cost-conscious Patriots willing to be the highest bidder? Pressing need.
In Weeks 1 and 2, only 41 percent of Tom Brady’s passes were thrown to wide receivers, the lowest in the NFL. There are long-term and short-term ways to view how they got here, and both show an organizational blind spot when it comes to finding and developing wide receivers, particularly through the draft.
The short-term path that led to the Gordon trade is this: The Patriots have made a league-leading 38 wide receiver transactions since the beginning of March.
In that series of moves — which includes draft choices, free agent signings, trades, cuts, putting players on injured reserve, and practice squad transactions — the Patriots are demonstrating that they think their receiver group has lots of room to improve.
Belichick and company are always trying to make the team stronger, but they value consistency and would always rather allow players to catch on, especially at a position such as wide receiver that is difficult in their system.
“It’s based on the individual that you’re talking about. I think there’s been positions through time that may need more time to develop than others, and again, that goes back to the individual player,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Tuesday. “But, I think we’ve had a lot of guys that have come in and been able to pick up things quickly, whatever position that might be, and then we’ve had other guys that have taken a little bit longer. That’s not an uncommon occurrence throughout the course of the league.”
The offense is complicated, with endless option routes and quick decision making, though two decades of team success say it’s well worth it, though it makes it harder for players such as Corey Coleman, Chad Hansen, or Bennie Fowler to catch on immediately.
One contributing factor to the lack of receiver depth is the team’s struggles in drafting and receivers.
New England hasn’t put much draft capital into the position and, when it has, has missed the mark more often than it has hit. Julian Edelman, a seventh-round draft pick in 2009, is the only home-grown receiver on the roster. And Edelman was a quarterback at Kent State.
In the last 10 drafts, the Patriots have picked 10 wide receivers. None have gone in the first round. One, Aaron Dobson in 2013, went in the second. There have been two third-rounders (Taylor Price in 2010, Brandon Tate in 2009), two fourth-rounders (Malcolm Mitchell in 2016, Josh Boyce in 2013), one sixth-rounder (Braxton Berrios in 2018), and four seventh-rounders (Devin Lucien in 2016, Jeremy Gallon in 2014, Jeremy Ebert in 2012, and Edelman).
All told, the Patriots have gotten 6,233 yards and 35 touchdowns from that group.
“There’s guys that need — you need time, you need to develop them. Some of them come in more ready than others from the systems and the programs that they were in in college,” McDaniels said. “It’s our job to take them from wherever they’re at when they get here and teach them, coach them, and develop them as best we can with the time that we’re given and try to get them to learn what we need them to learn, so that they can go out there and execute well on the field.”
The gold standard for drafting receivers, at least in recent NFL history, is probably the Steelers. In that same period over the last decade where the Patriots got 6,233 yards and 35 touchdowns from their drafted wide receivers? The Steelers have gotten 21,331 receiving yards and 140 touchdowns.
They used more draft capital – 11 players selected with two in the second round, four in the third, one in the fourth, two in the sixth, and two in the seventh – and almost every pick hit. That group includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, and Mike Wallace. Only one of the 11 draft picks never made the roster; six gave them more than 1,000 yards.
It’s a popular theory, but it’s possible the complexity of the Patriots offense makes it harder to find players ready to excel in it. One thing Gordon has going for him, pointed out by former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak, is that Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system is derived from the same Erhardt-Perkins offense the Patriots use. The terminology should be a bit easier for him to pick up than a player coming from, say, a West Coast offense.
“Like I said, each situation’s different,” McDaniels said. “I know this, that we’ve got a great group of people, we have a great staff that works really hard, is very diligent about that and I’m excited about the group that we get to coach each week.”
If Gordon is what the Patriots hope, then maybe the group McDaniels coaches can stick together for a bit.