Highly rated WRs have found it tough to catch on with Patriots

Deion Branch was one of the few receivers to make his mark as a rookie in New England under Bill Belichick. 

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Patriots looking for Deion Branch-type pick: If the Patriots could pull off what they did in 2002, when they drafted receiver Deion Branch at the end of the second round, it would help answer one of their biggest questions.

Branch is one of the few rookie receivers who made an immediate impact in his first season (43 catches, 489 yards, 2 TDs), as he is No. 1 on the short list of early-round receivers the Patriots have decisively hit on in Bill Belichick’s 19-year tenure as head coach.

The position has been a trouble spot for the franchise more than most early in the draft.

Whereas the Patriots have been excellent at identifying and developing offensive linemen and other positions, the selections of receivers Aaron Dobson (2013, No. 59), Josh Boyce (2013, No. 102), Taylor Price (2010, No. 90), Brandon Tate (2009, No. 83), Chad Jackson (2006, No. 36) and Bethel Johnson (2003, No. 45) represent a group of top-100 picks at receiver who didn’t develop as hoped.

And with receiver clearly one of the team’s top needs in 2019, it sparks what is arguably the top Patriots question entering the NFL draft (April 25-27, ESPN): With six of the first 101 picks in the draft, can they reverse this history and add a Branch-like prospect?

I reached out to Branch at his home in Indianapolis to ask what Patriots fans should be looking for based on his own experience (2002-05 in New England, 2006-09 in Seattle, 2010-12 back to New England):

  • Helps coming from system with pro concepts: “Being at the University of Louisville, Coach [Scott] Linehan was my offensive coordinator. We ran a spread system, but it had a lot of professional concepts like understanding how to read hot, and sight adjustments, and things like that. That’s a vital part of [the Patriots’] offense — understanding blitzes, adjusting on the fly. A lot of kids coming out of college don’t understand that until they get to the NFL. That can take a while, and I noticed that with some guys when I was there as they were bringing younger receivers in. I was blessed to go through a college program with an offensive coordinator who took us through those things.”

  • Patriots’ offense is a different beast: “I think the magnitude of the playbook is different … and now you have a guy [Tom Brady] who has been in that offense for 20 years. And when you take a guy in the first or second round, you expect them to come in and deliver, but it moves fast on them. You have a rookie camp, minicamp, offseason program and training camp — you’re expected to have it by the time the season rolls around. And once the season does roll around, there isn’t enough time in the week to focus on one guy, saying, ‘This is what it’s going to be,’ because then the next week, it completely changes. So you’re either going to pick it up or not, and you can see that early.”

  • Mentoring is critical: “Having guys like Troy Brown and David Patten, who would mentor me, that made it easier for me to roll in and not feel like I had to know everything. They were doing so much on the fly, it allowed me to lock in at one position. Then, after my rookie season, I could be more mobile within the offense — going from the X, to the Z, to the Y, to the F. That takes time, and I felt like by that point Tom [Brady] and I were on the same page and he trusted me.”

  • Prospects that catch his eye this year: “I enjoy watching the college games, and with the NFL, I only watch [the Patriots]. I haven’t seen as many guys on the West Coast, but I like the two Ole Miss receivers [D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown]. And Calvin Ridley‘s brother at Georgia [Riley Ridley]. He reminds me so much of his brother, and I think he has a chance to be special like him.”

2. Demaryius Thomas fits the program: The modest, incentive-filled, one-year contract signed by veteran receiver Thomas highlights how the Patriots are taking a “we’ll see” approach with him as he attempts to come back from an Achilles tear (he was already slowing down prior to the injury). But one thing they already know they can count on with Thomas, and it relates to a point that Branch made about how Brown and Patten were instrumental in his development, is that he is a first-class teammate who has been widely revered by those who have played alongside him. Everything counts when building a team.

3. After Malcolm Mitchell, Patriots eyeing another Georgia receiver: Mitchell, the Patriots’ early fourth-round pick from the University of Georgia in 2016, had a promising rookie season and looked like he was closest to matching Branch before a chronic knee injury ended his career after just one season. Now the Patriots seem to be strongly considering going back to the Georgia pipeline, following up their hosting of Bulldogs receiver Mecole Hardman at Gillette Stadium on a pre-draft visit by scheduling a private workout with him over the past few days. So the speedy 5-foot-10, 187-pound Hardman, who projects as a Day 2 pick and whose positional value is enhanced by his punt-return ability, is one prospect for Patriots fans to keep on their radar should he fall in the second and/or third rounds.

4. Visit with Terez Hall highlights depth of scouting: While much of the media coverage of the NFL draft focuses on the first round, the thoroughness with which the Patriots operate was highlighted Wednesday when hard-hitting Missouri linebacker Hall was brought to town for one of the club’s 30 allotted visits. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Hall is likely to be drafted on Day 3 (Rounds 4-7), but that didn’t stop the Patriots from investing notable resources to finalize their evaluation of him, with newly hired assistant coach Jerod Mayo playing a significant role in the process. One reason for the visit could be that Hall injured a pectoral muscle while doing the bench press at the combine, and he also tweaked an Achilles while running the 40-yard dash at Missouri’s pro day, which led to a slower-than-anticipated time (4.9 seconds). Among other things, teams always want the most up-to-date medical information before finalizing a grade on a player, and Hall’s visit was a reminder of how extensive the scouting process is.

5. QB or not QB is the question for Patriots: NFL teams are allowed to host up to 30 prospects on pre-draft visits, and while those don’t always indicate legitimate interest, they at least reflect how the club is seeking more information before placing a final grade on a prospect. One thing that stands out to me about the Patriots’ list of visitors this year is the high volume of quarterbacks, which includes Will Grier (West Virginia), Daniel Jones (Duke), Jarrett Stidham (Auburn) and Clayton Thorson (Northwestern). They nailed it with Jimmy Garoppolo (2014, second round, No. 62), and Jacoby Brissett (2016, third round, No. 91) yielded a solid return in a trade after his development in the system was viewed to have stunted, so the possibility they take another shot at the position is one of several intriguing storylines. The timeline is well documented: Brady, who turns 42 in August, hopes to play until he’s 45 and enters the final year of his contract. Backup Brian Hoyer is signed through the 2019 season, and 2018 seventh-round pick Danny Etling (LSU) is a developmental prospect who has a big spring ahead of him to show he can be part of the team’s future.

6. Did You Know: Etling continues to work with Brady’s throwing coach, Tom House, at 3DQB in California. It was something he had done prior to being drafted by the Patriots, and he stayed with it this offseason in hopes of putting himself in the best position to earn a roster spot.

7. Tracking the Patriots’ in-house visits: Based on reports and independent reporting, others who took (or were scheduled to take) pre-draft visits to the Patriots include wide receivers A.J. Brown (Mississippi), Deebo Samuel (South Carolina), N’Keal Harry (Arizona State) and Jalen Hurd (Baylor); tight ends Jace Sternberger (Texas A&M) and Noah Fant (Iowa); safety Johnathan Abram (Mississippi State) and offensive tackle Kaleb McGary (Washington).

8. Ranking New England’s needs: Belichick noted the Patriots evaluate the perceived needs of all NFL teams to aid their strategy during the draft, and this is my view of his club’s needs:

  • Wide receiver: While they have won championships with depleted receiver depth charts, they usually start with more than they currently have.

  • Tight end: The possibility that Austin Seferian-Jenkins contributes could soften the blow of Rob Gronkowski‘s retirement, but there’s no given it unfolds that way.

  • Offensive tackle: Projected starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn (2018 first-round pick) is coming off a torn Achilles and the depth has been depleted with Trent Brown (Raiders) and LaAdrian Waddle (Bills) departing in free agency.

  • Quarterback: If Garoppolo 2.0 is an option, it always has to be on the radar.

  • Defensive end: It’s a key year for 2017 third-round pick Derek Rivers, and his emergence would be a boost behind Michael Bennett and Deatrich Wise Jr.

  • Guard/center: Starting left guard Joe Thuney is scheduled for free agency after the season.

  • Defensive tackle: A developmental option behind starters Lawrence Guy and Mike Pennel.

  • Linebacker: Backups often play an important role on special teams, and there is a void to be filled.

  • Punter: Ryan Allen re-signed for only one year.

  • Safety: Everyone returns, with Terrence Brooks added in free agency, so any addition would be with the future in mind to help an older core.

  • Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski is locked in for 2019 after inking a two-year deal in free agency, but similar to quarterback, eyeing a future option warrants consideration.

  • Running back: A well-stocked position group after taking Sony Michel 31st overall last year.

  • Cornerback: All the top personnel returns in 2019, with projected upside for second-year players J.C. Jackson and Keion Crossen.

9. Changes expected in personnel ranks: As is commonplace for many scouting departments after the draft, the Patriots are expected to undergo some change on their personnel staff. One name to watch is national scout Dujuan Daniels, the Boston College alum who joined the organization in 2006 on the recommendation of longtime Patriots assistant and current Dolphins coach Brian Flores. Daniels told Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star that he hopes to one day be a general manager, and with the Patriots well stocked at the upper levels of their staff, Daniels might find more upward mobility elsewhere.

10. Tough to pick just one for Patriots Hall of Fame: With the Patriots announcing that safety Rodney Harrison, defensive tackle Richard Seymour and linebacker Mike Vrabel are 2019 finalists for induction into their Hall of Fame, Branch’s reaction was probably similar to many fans: “Man, how do you pick just one?” Fans will vote for one inductee to join offensive tackle Leon Gray, who was selected by the Seniors Committee. “Within the next three years, I’m pretty sure all three will go in,” said Branch, who added that he couldn’t pick just one, but forecast that Seymour was probably the favorite to win this year’s fan vote.

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