Patriots Must Focus Attention on Drafting Stud Receiver Even More Now That Emmanuel Sanders Is Out

Tom Brady, Bill belichickAfter five days of uncertainty, Emmanuel Sanders’ future has finally been settled. And it won’t be in New England.

The Steelers decided to match the Patriots $2.5 million offer sheet in the final hours of their five-day window on Sunday night. The move keeps one of Ben Roethlisberger‘s favorite targets in Pittsburgh and forces the Patriots back to the drawing board at wide receiver.

Right now, the Patriots’ roster at wide receiver isn’t a pretty sight. It looks something like this:

Kamar Aiken
Danny Amendola
Jeremy Ebert
Julian Edelman
Andre Holmes
Michael Jenkins
Donald Jones
Matthew Slater

Sure, there is potential to be had in that group, but aside from Amendola, Jenkins, Jones and maybe Edelman, none of those guys have really proven themselves in the NFL.

Holmes and Slater have just three career catches between them. Aiken has never caught a pass in the NFL. Ebert hasn’t even played in a regular season game. That “proven” crowd has some big question marks, too.

Amendola is the most established of the foursome, catching 60-plus passes in each of his two healthy seasons, but merely qualifying that statement with the term “healthy seasons” says it all. Jenkins has consistently produced about 40 catches per year for going on eight seasons now, but he plays slow and will be 31 by the time training camp opens up. Jones finally lived up to his potential with 41 grabs and four scores in 2012, but the Bills didn’t even think he was worth an offer. And Edelman’s injury history — he played just 48 of a possible 64 games in four seasons — is well documented in New England.

So, with the free-agent market all thinned out at receiver, the Patriots’ best course of action appears to be refocusing their attention on restocking through the draft. But they haven’t found a whole lot of success drafting at the position during Bill Belichick‘s tenure with the team.

Looking back, the only receiver they’ve really hit on over the past 13 years was Deion Branch. David Givens (seventh round, 2002) was a late-round win and the jury is still out on fellow seventh rounders Edelman (2009) and Ebert (2012). But there were also plenty of swings and misses, including Bethel Johnson (second round, 2003), P.K. Sam (fifth round, 2004), Chad Jackson (second round, 2006), Brandon Tate (third round, 2009) and Taylor Price (third round, 2010).

This year’s class is chock-full of talent and many of the prospects have incredible upside. The Patriots have already hosted TCU’s Josh Boyce, Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills, Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton and USC’s Robert Woods on reported pre-draft visits, but there are a number of other intriguing prospects out there.

Tennessee’s Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson have a great combination of size and speed as well as a penchant for the big play. Texas A&M’s Ryan Swope and Baylor’s Terrance Williams are both productive and versatile. West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey has great quickness and a serious nose for the end zone. Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins offers a reliable, physical receiver who is NFL-ready. And Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton is a reliable pass catcher much like Deion Branch.

Tom Brady doesn’t have much to work with right now and the Patriots need to change that. They made an effort, but now they need to make something happen.

There are plenty of prospects — even more than the ones listed above — with tons of talent in this year’s draft class, and it wouldn’t have been surprising for the Patriots to take a chance on one of them even if Sanders’ deal went through. Now, drafting a wide receiver is an even bigger priority and hitting on that pick is an almost necessity.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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