Shepard would be a perfect fit with the Patriots, but how long will he remain on the board? Brett Deering/Getty Images
With the NFL draft merely 11 days away, I'll be counting down the days with a positional review of each of the Patriots projected draft needs. Today marks three straight days of looking at offensive prospects, as I'm taking a look at this year's receiver class.
Position: Wide Receiver
Level of need: Short term: Intermediate Long term: High
Few positions have more questions on the Patriots depth chart than receiver, with the biggest uncertainty surrounding Danny Amendola's future with the team. Amendola is coming off of his best season with the Patriots, as Tom Brady relied on him more than ever in the extended absence of Julian Edelman. With Edelman being the only other receiver on the roster to have truly earned Brady's trust, the offense would take an undeniable hit if Amendola was released. However, Amendola carries a $6.8 million cap hit that far exceeds his role as the third or fourth option in the passing game, and it's hard to see the Pats carrying him at that number. Amendola took a pay cut at the team's request last offseason to stay in New England, and his willingness to do so in back-to-back seasons could determine whether he remains on the roster.
Questions abound at the X receiver spot as well. Brandon LaFell appeared to be the answer there after a strong debut 2014 season with the team, but a disastrous injury-plagued 2015 led to his offseason release. The team responded by signing Chris Hogan away from the rival Bills, an underrated player whose precise route running should fit well in the Patriots system. At 6'2", Hogan does have the size to play the X role, but he's probably better utilized in the slot. Other options in the X role include newly signed veteran deep threat Nate Washington, the perennially disappointing and oft-injured Aaron Dobson, or speedster Keshawn Martin.
While the bigger bodied, deep threat X role is a more prominent short-term need, the importance of the slot receiver in this offense could lead the team to stock the pipeline with another prospect to fit that role. As good as Edelman is, he's a month away from his 30th birthday and has had trouble staying on the field due to the immense amount of punishment he takes. How much longer can he maintain this level of production is a perfectly valid question. Combine that with Amendola's inevitable departure (even if he stays this year, he's highly unlikely to stay next season with a $7.8 million cap hit) and there's plenty of reasons to justify investing another pick in a player who could be the next to carry the Troy Brown/Wes Welker/Edelman slot torch for Brady's offense.
Out of reach:
Without a first round pick, the Patriots can't expect to land an elite prospect at any position. Thus, they'll certainly miss out on Laquon Treadwell (Ole Miss), Corey Coleman (Baylor) and Josh Doctson (TCU), all of whom are widely expected to go in the first round. Most projections have Notre Dame deep threat Will Fuller and Ohio State's Michael Thomas also out of the Patriots draft range, as those two are unlikely to last long into the second round.
Day two targets:
Sterling Shepard: Oklahoma
Patriots fans should be hoping that the league's continued de-valuation of the slot receiver leads to Shepard falling into their laps. That might prove to be wishful thinking, as Shepard has impressed throughout the pre-draft process. While Shepard carries the "slot" label, he has an Edelman-esque ability to play inside or outside effectively thanks to tremendous route running, hands, toughness and run after the catch ability. Shepard has the ball skills to win contested situations despite his relative lack of size (5'10", 194) and he has to speed to get behind defenders who bite on his double moves. Shepard also is known as a mentally tough competitor loaded with football character. While it's always tough to predict a rookie's ability to digest the Patriots notoriously complex playbook, Shepard comes with a highly developed route tree already in his repertoire and a skillset tailor-made to fit into the Patriots offense.
Leonte Carroo: Rutgers
Carroo would add size and physicality to the depth chart
At 6'0 and 211 pounds, Carroo was built to play the "X" receiver position in the Patriots offense. While Carroo doesn't have eye-popping deep speed, he used his size, length and fantastic hands to average over 20 yards a catch over his final two seasons at Rutgers. Carroo does a good job of selling the go route into come-backs and hitches and is physical and tough after the catch, characteristics that would serve him well in LaFell's old role. Carroo has good footwork that allowed him to get consistent separation at the collegiate level, leading to excellent production (29 touchdowns in three seasons) despite subpar quarterback play. His physicality also manifests itself in his blocking, which Bill Belichick demands from his outside receivers. Despite his standing as a team captain, there are some off the field red flags with Carroo. He was suspended for the first half of the season opener for missing curfew and for two other games later in the season after getting charged with assault in a domestic dispute (the charges were later dropped). The Patriots surely asked him about both incidents, amongst other things, when they brought him in for one of their 30 private visits.
Tyler Boyd: Pittsburgh
If players were drafted by collegiate production, Boyd would be right there in the first round discussion after breaking records for receptions and receiving yards at the school that produced Larry Fitzgerald. Boyd is more likely to be around in the third or fourth round due to a lack of top-end athleticism, but he succeeded in spite of that thanks to uber reliable hands and fantastic route running. His versatility to line up both in the slot and outside is a plus, as Pittsburgh came up with plenty of creative ways to get the ball in his hands, and he brings additional value as a punt returner. He continues to get dinged in the scouting community for a perceived lack of explosiveness, but previously players such as Keenan Allen and Jarvis Landry have shined after falling in the draft due to similar concerns. In the short term, Boyd's advanced route running projects as a fit for the Patriots offense, although he'd have to learn the complex playbook before earning Brady's trust.
Raw but with all the upside in the world, Miller has only played receiver for one season after converting from quarterback due to Ohio State's crowded depth chart. While his unrefined route running would make him a major project in New England, Miller has shown solid hands so far and dynamic athleticism that makes him a big play threat every time he touches the ball. Taking him would do little for the team short term, but could pay major dividends down the road if he can develop into a complete receiver, as he has the athletic talent to be a playmaker on Sundays.
Malcolm Mitchell: Georgia
Mitchell would bring big play potential to the Patriots offense
Mitchell's development and statistical production at Georgia were hampered by several factors: splitting time between receiver and corner early in his career, an ACL tear in the 2013 season opener, and Georgia's run-heavy play calling. Despite that, the receiver fought back from the ACL tear to make his fair share of plays, tallying 58 catches for 865 yards and 4 touchdowns as a senior. A former freshman All SEC pick, Mitchell doesn't have elite speed or size but is a good route runner with tremendous hands and a knack for making the contested catch. As a result, he makes more explosive plays down the field than one might expect, and he also earns props from scouts for his willingness to take a hit and make tough concentration catches over the middle. The Patriots used one of their 30 private workouts on the former Bulldog.
Rashard Higgins: Colorado
Like Boyd, Higgins has been sold short by some in the scouting community due to a lack of dynamic athleticism despite a resume of extremely consistent production. Higgins led the nation in receiving yards with 1,750 (to go with 92 catches and 17 touchdowns) in 2014 before having his production take a hit in 2015 in a new offense without NFL draftee Garrett Grayson at quarterback. Even with those factors, Higgins put up a more-than-respectable 75 catch, 1,062 yard, 8 touchdown season. Like Boyd, Higgins was successful in college due to his route running and hands, both of which are excellent. He might need to gain some strength to deal with press coverage at the next level, but there's little recent to think he can't develop into a productive complimentary receiver at the pro level.
Pharoh Cooper: South Carolina
More of an undersized slot type, Cooper's usage in college is somewhat similar to that of Percy Harvin at Florida, as the Gamecocks went to all kinds of creative lengths to get the ball in the hands of their best playmaker. Cooper is a bit unrefined as route-runner, but he has explosive ability in the open field that also manifested itself on kick returns. More of an all-purpose offensive weapon than a polished receiver at this point, Cooper's dangerous run after the catch ability is a nice skill to build upon, as the Patriots would likely have to develop his route running while integrating him into the offense with simple plays such as screens and reverses.
Day three targets:
Daniel Braverman: Western Michigan
A pure slot receiver who has earned Welker/Edelman comparisons from nearly everyone in the scouting community, Braverman answered questions about his quality of competition with a big-time effort against Ohio State last season. Sometimes GIFs speak louder than words, so I'll just leave this here as a perfect representation of Braverman's skillset.
ICYMI, Daniel Braverman's slant on this play is borderline uncoverable. A slot WR at its finest. https://t.co/6456fdxd2a
Garrett may be a small school prospect, but he's a perfect example of the "big downfield receiver" that Pats fans have been clamoring for since...well, forever. Garrett had a bit of an up-and-down career at Tulsa due to injuries, but he exploded as a senior for 96 catches, a nation-leading 1,588 yards and 8 touchdowns. At 6'3" and 220 pounds with long (34 1/2") arms, he brings an imposing build to the field which he uses well to stack cornerbacks and get vertical despite a lack of elite game-breaking speed. He's still a bit raw in the route-running department and drops the ball more than you'd like, but the upside here is tremendous. The Patriots used one of their 30 private pre-draft visits to get to know him better.
Moritz Boehringer: Germany
One of the draft's best stories, Boehringer went from a complete unknown to one of the draft's hotter names over night after posting absurd numbers at FAU's pro day. The 6'4", 225 pound German has been playing football for less than four years and spent last year dominating his only season in the German Football League (a competition level equivalent to DIII). He is the very definition of a project and would be highly unlikely to contribute early in his career, but the upside is through the roof: there simply aren't many humans on the planet who can move like he can at his size. Scouts also came away impressed with his hands and how he responded to coaching at his two public workouts, both of which were attended by the Patriots.
Keenan Reynolds: Navy
An option quarterback at Navy, Reynolds finished his sterling four-year career as the NCAA all time leader in career touchdowns. Scouts are unanimous that he won't remain a quarterback at the next level, but remain split whether his best pro fit is at running back or slot receiver. I'm projecting him as a converted slot receiver here, a position he played at the East-West Shrine Game under the tutelage of head coach Charlie Weis and receivers coach Troy Brown. To say the Patriots have shown interest in Reynolds would be a drastic understatement: so far Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, tight ends coach Brian Daboll and special teams coach Ray Ventrone have all put Reynolds through the paces at various private workouts.
DeMarcus Ayers: Houston
More of an offensive weapon than a pure receiver, the diminutive Ayers was fed a steady diet of bubble screens, jet sweeps and other quick hitting plays to take advantage of his explosive ability in space. He brings additional value as a return specialist with experience handling both punts and kickoffs. The Pats have put him through a private workout this spring.
Cody Core: Mississippi
A big bodied (6'3", 205) prospect who initially split time between receiver and defensive back in college, Core would be a developmental project who could contribute immediately as an able cover man on special teams. He has also been put through a private workout with Patriots brass.
A four star quarterback recruit who switched positions due the emergence of eventual NFL draftee Brett Hundley, Fuller is a phenomenal athlete who never turned his traits into consistent production with the Bruins. His athletic upside and ability to return kicks likely led to the Pats putting him through a private workout this spring.
Jay Lee: Baylor
Lee was a productive compliment to Corey Coleman last season and brings a tantalizing combination of size (6'1", 214) and vertical speed to the table. However, he comes in as a bit of a raw project (Baylor's spread offense essentially asks it's receivers to run four routes) who drops the ball too often for scouts' liking. His physical talent would be worth a late round role of the dice, and the Pats put him through a private workout this spring.