Mitchell has the ability to high point the ball and make acrobatic catches. Dale Zanine/USA Today
The Patriots added nine new players to their roster this weekend via the NFL draft. Therefore, I'll spending this week going over college film to get a closer look at the new Patriots and what they might add to the roster. The second half of today's doubleheader stays on the offensive side of the ball with a look at fourth round receiver Malcolm Mitchell, specifically his game film against Alabama and South Carolina.
Note: with the South Carolina game being the only tape provided on DraftBreakdown, I used their tape of Georgia left tackle John Theus against Alabama to see Mitchell's performance against the Crimson Tide
Mitchell brings a unique skill-set that is well suited to the Patriots offense. One of the qualities that immediately stands out on tape is the suddenness of his cuts. He can stop on a dime and explode into a cut with ease, making him very promising as a route runner. Of course, route running is one of the most important skills a Patriots receiver can have, as their offense and legendary quarterback both depend on precise timing and precision from their skill players.
Mitchell's sudden quickness and route running ability makes him particularly dangerous against off coverage, which gives him space to make those quick cuts. He showed that in a dominant performance against South Carolina, taking advantage of soft coverage to repeatedly create separation on slants. Their first possession gets sparked by a 25 yard gain on a beautifully run slant, with some yards tacked on after the catch (0:00 in the game film). At 1:02, he gets open again on a slant and shows good concentration to make the grab before ducking under a safety looking for a heavy collision. adding 15 yards and first down to what turns into a touchdown drive. A drive later (1:09), he puts the Dogs in the red zone with a 14 yard grab on yet another slant. He then finishes up that drive with five yard touchdown on, you guessed it, a slant.
Mitchell also showed excellent ability on curls, hitches, and all sorts comeback routes. While he's probably not quite the speed demon he was before tearing his ACL, Mitchell still has very respectable deep speed (4.45 40 yard dash) that defensive backs must respect. He does an excellent job of selling the go route before stopping sharply and turning back aggressively for the football. Mitchell creates separation on this route several times on film, with the 1:45 mark of the South Carolina game serving as a nice example. His ability on those patterns will be a major asset in New England, where the outside receivers are often asks to create quick separation on such routes. While Mitchell's quickness and ability to separate give him the potential to learn the slot, he spent 673 of his 722 snaps outside the numbers last season and projects as an outside receiver primarily.
With both the speed to challenge defensive backs deep and a propensity for the comeback route, Mitchell is tough to defend when he attempts to sell a double move. Over aggressive and undisciplined defensive backs could get roasted, just as he does to Alabama's Marion Humphrey on the first play of his film against the Crimson Tide. As you can see, Mitchell gets Humphrey to hesitate with a quick stutter before hitting the accelerators and running right by him. He does a good job of making an adjustment to the ball, but a poor throw leads him out of bounds and squanders an excellent route and big play opportunity.
Another quality that stands out right away when watching Mitchell is his dependable hands. According to ProFootballFocus, Mitchell dropped just four of the 93 catchable passes thrown his way over the past two seasons. That percentage is made more impressive by the degree of difficulty of some of those plays, as Mitchell made plenty of acrobatic, highlight reel catches in his Bulldogs career (one such play comes here against fellow Patriots rookie Cyrus Jones during the Alabama game.
Not only does Mitchell use his long arms well to expand his catch radius and snag the ball away from his body, but he also displays excellent concentration to hold on and make catches even when he knows a big hit is coming. That fearlessness is particularly shown at the 2:18 mark of the Alabama game, where he shows excellent hands to haul in a deep ball despite the free safety rapidly coming over to deliver a hit. Brady has always rewarded reliable hands that get open with targets, and Mitchell's tape shows that he possesses both of those skills in bunches.
High compete level
It was fun watching the Alabama tape, which saw fellow Patriots draft pick Cyrus Jones wind up tracking Mitchell for much of the game after Mitchell roasted Humphrey for two early big plays. Jones is renowned for the chippy, competitive edge with which he plays with, and Mitchell shows a great deal of competitiveness and fight level on tape as well. It was a good hard-fought battle between those two, with Mitchell winning more reps than his quiet stat sheet would indicate.
The primary way that compete level shows up on Mitchell's film is in his fight for yards after the catch. Mitchell gets most of his yards after the catch due to his slippery athleticism (he forced 13 missed tackles on just 53 receptions last year), but he also fights hard for every last yard on every catch, often adding bonus yards due to effort despite his lanky frame. The ability to gain yards after the catch is an important skill in a New England offense predicated on high-percentage, quick-hitting passes, and Mitchell projects as a good player in that department at the next level.
Another way that competitiveness shines through is in his fight to win in contested catch situations. Mitchell does a fantastic job of making adjustments and tracking the ball in the air (a skill he was forced to develop by some poor quarterback play this year) and he wins 50/50 balls more often than not. Mitchell is far from the strongest receiver in the world, but he uses his long arms well to be the aggressor and attack the ball. A great example of this comes at the 2:53 mark of the South Carolina game, when he sells a deep route before adjusting to a poorly located throw to cross the defenders face and snag a should-be interception out of his grasp for a big play.
Finally, Mitchell's competitiveness shows up in the effort he puts into blocking. Mitchell's lanky frame ensures he won't be bullying most NFL corners around as a blocker anytime soon. However, he puts good effort on tape into his blocking, and generally does a good job of at least fighting to stay in the way of his defender. While he's unlikely to turn into the kind of physical blocker Brandon LaFell was, his effort should combine with some expected strength gains in the weight room to make him a respectable blocker at the next level. To witness that effort, check out the 2:35 mark of the South Carolina film, where he shows great hustle to chase his assignment and keep him out of the play after the running back breaks off a long run. That's the kind of persistent effort that the Patriots look for from every player, regardless of position.
Still some question marks
Everything I've typed so far indicates that Malcolm Mitchell is a very talented player whose skill-set meshes very well with the Patriots tendencies and demands from his position. All that is true and there's plenty to be excited about, but there's also some question marks that need to be answered before he can blossom into the draft steal many believe he can be.
The biggest on-field concern with him is his skinny frame and below average NFL strength. Bigger, physical press corners could have success re-routing him early in his career. He'll have to prove he counter-act those type of corners with quickness at the line of scrimmage, because he'll struggle to get free when bigger, stronger guys get their hand on him. Developing his hand usage to defeat jams will be a big key to his early development.
Of course, every receiver drafted by the Patriots comes with a question mark due to the Patriots iffy record of developing young receivers. Some of the blame for their past failures can be placed on one of the league's most complex playbooks. Patriots passing plays often require for the receiver to make reads on the fly depending on what coverage they see, and it's imperative that the receiver and quarterback see the same thing and make the same read. It's a huge step up in complexity and passing game volume from what Mitchell experienced in Athens, and his ability to quickly master it will determine whether he contributes as rookie or not.
A final, troubling concern with Mitchell is his injury history, which is pretty expansive. Mitchell tore his ACL in 2013, a drastic injury that set his career back significantly (before the injury, there were whispers that he could become a first round pick). He also dealt with a variety of nagging injuries that affected his availability at times during his Bulldogs career. While Mitchell saw an expected jump in explosiveness in his second year back from knee surgery, the stigma of having already gone through a major knee injury likely pushed him back a round this past weekend. With such a skinny build (6'0", 198), his ability to withstand NFL punishment and stay on the field is uncertain until he proves his durability.
However, there's a lot to like about Mitchell's game. While he doesn't have quite the dominant physical tools to be a number one receiver at the NFL, Mitchell has the upside to develop into a high-end second option if all works out. His route running, reliable hands and ability to adjust to the ball and win contested situations all project well to the next level, and he's certainly athletic enough to handle the jump to a higher level of competition. Mitchell also comes with raves about his football character and work ethic, earning his teammates' vote as offensive captain this past season. All of those characteristics particularly fit in with the Patriots program. If he can answer those aforementioned questions, he could indeed become a major draft steal and a big part of the Patriots future passing attack.