Richard Sherman may be starting a trend in the NFL. No, not by going on First Take and saying he’s “better at life” than Skip Bayless (though that’s a welcome trend), but by being a 6-foot-3 cornerback with the size and physicality to dominate smaller wide receivers.
It’s no surprise that Dee Milliner, Xavier Rhodes, Desmond Trufant and Johnthan Banks — all at or around 6-foot — are the most highly sought after cornerbacks in the NFL draft after Sherman’s breakout second year in the league. And as the defensive backs get bigger and stronger, teams will need bigger and stronger wide receivers as well.
That’s why it’s important for the Patriots to develop a wideout who is more than six feet tall. Currently New England has a pitifully shallow wide receiver corps. The 5-foot-11 Danny Amendola leads the way, but after the newly acquired slot receiver, it gets ugly fast. Donald Jones — the 6-foot former Bill — is the default No. 2 wide receiver right now, even though he wasn’t a starter on the 6-10 2012 Buffalo squad. After Jones, special teamer Matthew Slater and practice squad-bound Kamar Aikan, Jeremy Ebert and Andre Holmes are all that’s left. Those four players have three career receptions between them.
There are rampant rumors that the Patriots could sign Steelers restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet after they brought the SMU product in for a visit nearly two weeks ago. Sanders would be a great fit in New England, but his 5-foot-11 frame still suggests the Patriots need to bring in a bigger target. Luckily, this year’s NFL draft is chock full of them.
This year’s draft will be a bit of a crapshoot. The Chiefs have reportedly narrowed the No. 1 pick down to six players — that should tell you all you need to know about predicting who will still be around when the Patriots draft at No. 29. With little difference in talent level between the No. 1 pick and the No. 32 pick, it’s a great year to have a later draft choice in the first round.
Four wide receivers are predicted to go in the first round of the draft right now. All four players would be great fits for the Patriots, but three of them fit exactly what New England needs.
Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, California’s Keenan Allen and Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson are all 6-foot-1 or taller and can do damage in the intermediate to deep half of the field. They all have their separate strengths, and none of them are perfect prospects, but perhaps their best assets are that they could contribute right away.
Hopkins is the best route runner of the bunch, and he’s got the best hands to boot. He doesn’t have game-breaking speed, but he proved at Clemson with Tahj Boyd throwing to him that he can catch the deep ball. Hopkins caught 82 passes for 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2012 as a junior, and he took 18 of those receptions to the house for touchdowns. One of Hopkins’ best assets is that he’s not afraid to fight for the ball. His physical nature should match up well with the bigger, stronger cornerbacks that are coming into the league.
Allen is still coming off a knee injury he suffered midway though the Cal season, and he won’t be able to work out until April 9. Coming into the season, Allen was the consensus No. 1 wideout in the draft, but poor quarterback play and injuries have possibly lowered his stock. Allen caught 98 passes for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns his sophomore year in 2011 and put together a 61-catch, 737-yard, six-touchdown, nine-game season in 2012. Allen is the most complete wide receiver when healthy, but like Hopkins, he doesn’t have elite, game-breaking speed.
Patterson is the fastest of the bunch — he ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL combine — but he’s also the most raw. The 6-foot-2, 216 pounder isn’t as precise in his route running as Hopkins or Allen. His hands aren’t quite as reliable either, but what he lacks in polish, he more than makes up for with his frenetic play-making ability.
Patterson caught 46 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns in 2012 — his first season at the FBS level. He also added 25 rushes for 308 yards and three touchdowns and 24 kick returns for 671 yards and a touchdown. Patterson’s ability after the catch is reminiscent of a smaller, faster Aaron Hernandez. Like Hernandez, supposed maturity issues could make Patterson fall in the draft.
Of course, with this year’s draft, it’s entirely possible that all three of those players could be gone by No. 29. Luckily, USC’s Robert Woods, Baylor’s Terrance Williams, Tennessee’s Justin Hunter and Tennessee Tech’s Da’Rick Rogers could be just what the doctor ordered as well, and at least some of those guys should be around with the No. 62 pick.
The Patriots don’t necessarily need a “deep threat” at wide receiver — Tom Brady is typically average on throws over 20 yards anyway — but they do need a bigger outside target that can play the “X” role while Hernandez is lined up at tight end. We’ll likely see sets with Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Jake Ballard all on the field at once, but an offensive rotation will give any wide receiver a good opportunity to get his feet wet while also not being expected to play 1,000 snaps.