Projections at wideout a project for Patriots

Projections at wideout a project for Patriots
April 22, 2013, 3:00 pm
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FOXBORO -- The Patriots have drafted 108 players under Bill Belichick. Less than 10 percent of those players have been wide receivers (10).
 
They’ve used three second-round picks on wideouts (Chad Jackson on 2006, Bethel Johnson in 2003, Deion Branch in 2002).
 
They’ve used two third-round picks (Taylor Price in 2010 and Brandon Tate in 2009).
 
They’ve used two fifth-rounders (Matt Slater in 2008 and PK Sam in 2004) and three seventh-rounders (Jeremy Ebert in 2012, Julian Edelman in 2009 and David Givens in 2002).
 
Look at those facts and consider the question that’s posed annually at this time of the year: “Why can’t the Patriots develop receivers they draft?”
 
A theory? They don’t try very hard at it. Over the past 12 seasons, here’s where the Patriots have finished in the NFL in points scored: 1, 3, 1, 6, 8, 1, 7, 10, 4, 12, 10 and 6.
 
That, despite taking only 10 receivers in 13 drafts and none of them in the first round.
 
The Patriots, it seems, would prefer to procure their targets through other avenues, namely trades (Randy Moss and Wes Welker) or free agency (Brandon Lloyd, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney).
 
Why is that preferable to the draft?
 
The reason’s two-fold. College passing games are primitive compared to the NFL, a point Bill Belichick has often made. That means the college receiver has a steep learning curve to face in the NFL.
 
“You have to do your own homework,” Patriots personnel man Nick Caserio said Monday. “[You say], ‘Okay, here’s what they were asked to do, maybe we’re gonna ask him to do that. Here’s what else we’re gonna ask him to do. How will [the prospects] be able to do that? Are [the prospects] going to retain it, are they gonna learn it?' ”
 
Especially in a Patriots offense -- perhaps the most highly evolved in NFL history in terms of being able to morph from series-to-series with myriad post-snap reads -- that is as far from a college passing game as an offense can get.
 
With an insanely demanding quarterback and annual Super Bowl expectations, the Patriots don’t have time to wait for guys to muddle through until light dawns on Marblehead.
 
Brady has made a meal of the hides of veterans like Fred Taylor, Joey Galloway, Lloyd, Welker and Edelman when they screwed up. With Bethel Johnson and Chad Jackson, he eventually threw up his hands.
 
I’m not saying it’s good to run a system so sophisticated it eliminates the college player. But that’s what it is.
 
And that’s why it’s daunting to project college receivers into the New England offense, Caserio said on Monday.
 
Even with the proliferation of spread offenses in college and their seepage into the NFL, there still isn’t a ton of common ground, said Caserio. In fact, it’s made the demands in many systems even less mentally arduous.
 
“It depends on the system,” Caserio explained when asked if the spread was producing more polished players. “Each team employs it differently. The pace has definitely come into play at the collegiate level.
 
“That can simplify some things because some teams say, ‘Okay, we have a menu of plays 1 through 10 and essentially [the receivers] have to memorize them and one word tells everyone what to do,’ ” Caserio explained. “Or we’ve talked to some players who look to the sideline and there are five coaches signaling to the players, one for each position. They’re focused on one thing only.”
 
In the NFL and in the Patriots’ system, all positions are interlinked and, depending on defenses and situations, receivers may become interchangeable. There’s no room for worrying about just one thing. How to find a player who projects to being comfortable in that setup?
 
“I think you have to look at the system and then I think you have to do your research and look at a number of different things,” said Caserio. “To what extent and how complicated the [scheme] may or may not be. The terminology that’s involved, what they’re asking of that player. It’s not necessarily the spread and passing oriented. It’s system specific and what they’re asking those players to do and then its making a determination of how that will or will not translate. Or it’s making a determination of, ‘Okay, we’re starting here at Point A, these are the things we’re going to have to do to get him to Point B,' or this player is a little further along.”
 
Currently, the Patriots are stocked with targets for Brady but the one, true outside threat who can agitate a defense outside the numbers isn’t on the roster. He isn’t in the picked-over, unrestricted free-agent crop either. The Patriots’ best chance to find that type of player is in the draft, which begins Thursday.
 
Keenan Allen from Cal, Terrence Williams from Baylor, USC’s Robert Woods and Justin Hunter from Tennessee are players in the draft with those characteristics. They are 6-foot-2, 6-2, 6-feet and 6-4, respectively, with 4.5 or better 40 times and good college production.
 
Speaking about the Cal program that Allen hails from, Caserio said, “Coach [Jeff] Tedford has been a great coach for a number of years and they run a pretty sophisticated offense and they ask those players to do a number of things. [USC] Coach [Lane] Kiffin has an NFL background and I think he’s implemented some of those philosophies into his offense.”
 
If the Patriots are going to buck their self-imposed convention at wideout and grab one in the first round, either the prospects are going to have to wow them or New England’s going to have to change its demands. Because history indicates the Patriots aren’t good at, and don’t enjoy, making wideout projections.