By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Northwestern wideout Austin Carr could be the heir apparent to Julian Edelman as the Patriots’ next slot receiver. This is not an original thought; in fact, it was brought up long before the 2017 NFL Draft.
Carr generated some buzz as a potential late-round Patriots pick even over a month before the draft took place. Pats Pulpit’s Rich Hill called it after the Patriots attended Northwestern’s Pro Day. Carr had previously told Yahoo! Sports’ Eric Edholm that he believed he could be a good fit for the Patriots.
Obviously, the Pats agree. And Carr’s strengths, as listed on his NFL.com Draft Profile, certainly check off all the boxes as a Patriots kind of player:
Strengths: “Highly competitive. Former walk-on with very good work ethic and confidence. Plays with toughness. Willing to make his mark over middle of the field. Extremely focused when ball is in the air. Snatches the ball out in front of his frame with strong hands. … Able to make the combat catches in traffic. … Routes are run with consistent pace and rarely gives defensive backs a snap off. … Finds optimal space in zones when working underneath.”
Carr’s weaknesses mostly come from a perceived lack of NFL-caliber athleticism. He gets his catches and yards mostly through effort and smarts rather than pure physical talent, and could have trouble getting separation from more athletic NFL corners. Scouts and analysts don’t seem to believe that Carr ultimately has the physical tools to be a strong receiving threat in the NFL.
But who believed that Edelman, who (in case TV broadcasters haven’t reminded you in the past 40 minutes) was drafted in the seventh round as a converted quarterback from Kent State, would make the kind of impact he makes now?
One thing that Carr has going for him that Edelman did not is that he’s much more polished as a wide receiver as he enters the NFL. And he was no ordinary wideout at Northwestern; he won the 2016 Richter-Howard award as the Big 10’s wide receiver of the year, an honor won twice by the Jaguars’ Allen Robinson. He won the “receiver triple crown” as he led the conference in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
Watch highlights from Carr’s season at Northwestern below:
Pro Football Focus graded Carr as college football’s best receiver after his superlative 2016 season, and yet, he still was snubbed from the NFL Scouting Combine. Can’t bother the scouts with silly things like work ethic when you can’t jump high enough for their liking.
So in turn, the rest of the NFL just let the Patriots sign Carr as an undrafted free agent mere hours after the conclusion of the draft (here’s the full list of Patriots UDFAs). They will have to hope that Carr doesn’t turn out to be the next Edelman, Wes Welker, Troy Brown, etc. as a relatively unheralded slot receiver who ended up making a huge impact.
The only drawback with Carr is that his true impact may not come with Tom Brady. With the G.O.A.T. turning 40 before the 2017 season and Jimmy Garoppolo seemingly waiting in the wings to eventually take over, there’s no telling how much longer Brady will be under center and playing at a Hall-of-Fame level in New England.
But in general, the slot receiver is more of a function of Bill Belichick’s offensive system. Brady is simply the best possible quarterback to run it. Carr could still make an impact down the road with Garoppolo or another quarterback in the Patriots’ system. Whether or not that ever happens, Carr certainly appears to be a free agent who was worth the gamble.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.