By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bill Belichick is never going to just tell you what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. If you want to really know, you’ve got to do some deducing. Some surmising, if you will.
A little bit of hypothesizing.
And while we’re unlikely to ever get to the bottom of why, exactly, any team would ever trade up to select a punter in the fifth round, we should be able to settle on at least one takeaway with regard to what a main objective of the Patriots was this past weekend.
That goal? Add some tall receivers.
That much was clear late Thursday night, when Belichick selected a wide receiver in the first round for the very first time in his tenure as Patriots head coach. Belichick had made a first-round pick 17 times before last week, and 17 times he avoided the receiver position. He hadn’t even spent many second or third-round picks on receivers in his two decades of drafting, only selecting four second-round receivers and two third-round receivers since 2000.
But this year marked a change of direction, with the Patriots drafting the big-bodied and physical N’Keal Harry out of Arizona State. He was listed at 6-foot-4 in college, but that was apparently a bit goosed; he measured in at 6-foot-2 and 3/8 at the combine.
Nevertheless, Harry represents a different type of receiver than the ones who have thrived during the Tom Brady era. Outside of Randy Moss (6-foot-4) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (6-foot-6), the prototypical Patriots receiver has been on the shorter but shiftier end. Deion Branch (5-foot-9), Wes Welker (5-foot-9), Troy Brown (5-foot-10), Julian Edelman (5-foot-10), David Patten (5-foot-10), and Danny Amendola (5-foot-11) all thrived in Brady’s offenses, dating back to the Charlie Weis days through the multiple tenures of Josh McDaniels. Unlike the real world, shorter has been better in Foxboro.
It’s not as if the Patriots have gotten no contributions from taller receivers. Chris Hogan (6-foot-1), Brandon LaFell (6-foot-3), Malcolm Mitchell (6-foot-1), and Cordarrelle Patterson (6-foot-2) have all contributed to championships, to various degrees, in recent seasons. But they haven’t been the focal point of the offense.
That may change, as Harry wasn’t the only player added to the team over the weekend who fits the new mold.
In the pool of undrafted free agents, the Patriots made three signings at the receiver position. One stands at 6-foot-2, and another stands at 6-foot-3.
Now, whether any of the 10 UDFAs makes the roster is always a question, let alone multiple players at the same position. But the effort to sign both Xavier Ubosi out of UAB and Jakobi Meyers out of N.C. State would seem to indicate that the Patriots are placing a priority on height at the receiver spot.
And, now that we have the additions of draft weekend to further frame the picture, we can look back to the additions from earlier in the offseason to see a continuation of the trend. Demaryius Thomas was brought in on a prove-it deal; he is 6-foot-3. Maurice Harris was signed early in the free agency process; he, likewise, stands at 6-foot-3.
Now, the addition of five receivers who all stand 6-foot-2 or taller could just be one wild coincidence. Or it could be — and likely is — the result of a concerted effort to grow up a bit at the receiver spot.
Perhaps it’s the Josh Gordon effect. When the Patriots added Gordon early last season, their offense changed on the fly to incorporate him. After some early bumps, he and Brady worked very well together, to the tune of 30 receptions for 577 yards and a pair of touchdowns over a seven-game span. Gordon had a quiet finale as a Patriot, before he was indefinitely suspended. The Patriots adjusted by becoming a run-heavy team, and they rode that style all the way to a Super Bowl victory.
But for 2019, it appears from the outside as if the Patriots are going … exactly there: the outside.
That may be in part for how efficient Gordon was in terms of yards per reception. Gordon averaged 18 yards per catch last season, which was best on the team and the highest-such mark for a Patriots receiver (with at least 40 receptions) since David Patten in 2004. (Even in Randy Moss’ historic 2007 season, he averaged “only” 15.2 yards per reception.) And with the subtraction of Gronkowski, the need to pick up yards in large chunks will have to be fulfilled by other players. Being a tall person appears to be a prerequisite.
It’s notable on its surface for representing a potential philosophy shift from a team that’s relied heavily on the slot receiver and pass-catching running back to account for a significant chunk of the team passing yards. On top of that, it’s noteworthy because it could be a case of Belichick once again bringing back a position which he helped to devalue over the years.
That may be an overstatement, as teams certainly have still valued big-bodied outside receivers. But the rise of the slot receiver’s value across the NFL coincided with the dominance of Welker. It is, as the people say, a copycat league.
At the same time, the increased use of the spread, no-huddle offense by the Patriots helped make the fullback become a bit of an obsolete position in many NFL circles. And who was it that brought the fullback back to the forefront of a championship-level offense again? That was of course Bill Belichick, with human wrecking ball James Develin.
We may be straggling here. Perhaps we’re giving Belichick too much credit for reinventing wheels. Maybe he’s just out there coaching. Maybe all of these tall receivers added this year simply have desirable skill-sets to the Patriots’ decision-makers. Maybe.
But in terms of inferring what the Patriots intended to do based on what they actually did, it does appear as though getting taller at the receiver spot was certainly a goal this spring.