If the New England Patriots hope to come away with one of the top pass-catchers in the 2021 NFL Draft, they might need to get aggressive.
Any hopes of the Patriots being able to sit and wait to draft Florida tight end Kyle Pitts 15th overall seem dashed at this point. NFL Media draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout, ranked Pitts third on his top 50 prospects list on Tuesday. If Pitts, 20, were to be picked third, he’d be the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history. That distinction currently belongs to Ron Kramer, who was taken fourth overall in the 1957 NFL Draft. Mike Ditka (Chicago Bears, 1961) and Riley Odoms (Denver Broncos, 1972) were selected fifth overall.
PFF’s Sam Monson recently said Pitts is the “best receiver in the draft regardless of position” on the PFF NFL Daily Podcast.
That’s high praise since this year’s draft class also includes wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
Chase, an LSU product, opted out for the 2020 NCAA season but won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as a 19-year-old sophomore in 2019 when he caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards with 20 touchdowns. Chase was LSU’s top wide receiver in 2019 over Justin Jefferson, who went on to catch 88 passes for 1,400 yards with seven touchdowns as a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings in 2020.
Smith, 22, was the Biletnikoff and Heisman Trophy winner in 2020 after catching 117 passes for 1,856 yards with 23 touchdowns for Alabama.
Waddle, 22, has been favorably compared to Tyreek Hill and averaged 21.1 yards per catch in 2020 and 18.9 yards per catch throughout his three-year college career.
Pitts was the John Mackey Award winner in 2020 after catching 43 passes for 770 yards with 12 touchdowns in just eight games.
Jeremiah has Chase ranked second, Waddle sixth and Smith eighth on his top 50 prospects list. PFF has Chase ranked fifth, Waddle seventh, Smith eighth and Pitts ninth on their 2021 NFL Draft big board.
The Patriots are in a tough spot picking 15th because in all likelihood the top players at their biggest positions of need, quarterback and wide receiver, will be gone. The top quarterbacks — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance — could be gone by the eighth overall pick. It would be a miracle if Pitts, Chase, Smith or Waddle were still there at No. 15 since everyone is always looking for pass-catching weapons, and this is an elite high-end class.
If Chase, Pitts, Smith, Waddle, Lawrence, Fields, Wilson and Lance are all gone at No. 15 overall, which is the most likely scenario, New England could stay put and take Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, a wide receiver like Florida’s Kadarius Toney or draft the best player available which would most likely be a cornerback, offensive tackle, linebacker or edge defender. The Patriots have needs across the board but given their current void and the way receivers are paid, it might be smart for New England to do everything in their power to trade up and draft one of those top four pass-catchers if they can’t get a quarterback. It seems like they can’t go wrong with Pitts, Chase, Smith or Waddle, assuming they’re fits in the Patriots’ locker room. Head coach Bill Belichick certainly wouldn’t put up with a young wideout demanding the ball.
The Patriots could package the 15th overall pick with a 2021 second- or third-round pick, a 2022 first- or second-round pick or a player like cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore or JC Jackson depending on how far they would have to move up. They’re never in this position to take a top-end pass-catcher, and it’s the cheapest way to immediately add firepower into an offense that’s severely lacking in that department.
The Patriots also have the option to sign or trade for a veteran pass-catcher before the draft. Wide receivers Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin and Kenny Golladay and tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are franchise-tag candidates. That could leave wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Will Fuller and tight end Gerald Everett as the top available options on the open market. Eagles tight end Zach Ertz also could be traded or released.
Signing or trading for a pass-catcher should not preclude the Patriots from being aggressive in landing one in the draft, as well. It’s unclear who will play quarterback for the Patriots in 2021, but no matter who is under center, he’ll need better weapons than the ones Tom Brady had in 2019 and Cam Newton targeted in 2020.
Pitts, Chase, Smith and Waddle all are incredibly intriguing prospects for different reasons, and if one of them starts to fall out of the top 10 picks in the draft, it might not take much to come away with one of them.