The final draft pick of Ernie Adams’ illustrious career with the New England Patriots was, appropriately, a value investment.
Adams handpicked wide receiver Tre Nixon before announcing his retirement days later.
In between gigs with the Patriots, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns and back with New England that spanned the last 46 years, Adams worked on Wall Street and “developed an expertise in obscure value stocks,” Paul Isaac, one of his co-workers at Mabon, Nugent & Co., told The Boston Globe last year.
Nixon once was a hot commodity, but he saw his stock fall during his college career. Adams made a fitting decision to buy low in hopes that the UCF wideout would rebound.
It’s not known exactly what Adams did with the Patriots as “football research director” because the answer might just be everything. But he’s been a mainstay in New England’s draft room over the last 21 years.
“He’s literally been involved in every single aspect of the football program at every level that you could possibly be involved in,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said after the 2021 draft.
If there’s one glaring blind spot in the scouting department of the dynasty-era Patriots, it’s been their inability to properly evaluate college wide receivers.
It still hasn’t stopped them from winning six Super Bowls.
Perhaps Nixon, a seventh-round selection, will reverse the downward trend. The UCF product is not your typical late-round pick, and history is on his side.
Belichick’s Patriots actually started out 2-for-2 at selecting wide receivers. The first two wideouts Belichick selected in New England were future Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch in the second round of the 2002 NFL Draft and seventh-rounder David Givens in the same year.
Givens, another value pick with just 814 career college receiving yards, also was famously personally selected by Adams. As Belichick explained it in a Patriots social media video, “Ernie was given a stack of books and he pulled David Givens out, and that was a pretty good pick.”
Givens caught 158 passes for 2,214 yards with 12 touchdowns in four seasons with the Patriots — including 115 catches for 1,612 yards with five touchdowns in his final two — before signing a massive five-year deal with the Tennessee Titans. The Patriots actually passed on their pick eight times before Adams pulled Givens.
New England’s history of drafting wide receivers since taking Givens has been ugly with only three notable exceptions: Matthew Slater, a special-teamer, Julian Edelman, a college quarterback, and Malcolm Mitchell, who had a fantastic rookie season, helping the Patriots win Super Bowl LI before injuries derailed his career.
Adams finished his Patriots scouting career with one last pick: Nixon.
Nixon has been scoring touchdowns on NFL cornerbacks for years.
As a senior at Viera (Fla.) High School, Nixon put on a show in a tough loss to Cocoa (Fla.) High School, emerging victorious in the battle against future New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
It was a highly anticipated matchup between top recruits that Nixon won handily. He beat Gardner-Johnson for two touchdowns, one for 25 yards and the other for 45. Gardner-Johnson, a four-star recruit and the fourth-best cornerback in the nation headed to the University of Florida, was then pulled from his assignment.
Nixon scored two more touchdowns against Gardner-Johnson’s replacements, hauling in six passes for 117 yards.
Gardner-Johnson hasn’t allowed two touchdowns in a game through two NFL seasons.
Nixon first caught the attention of college recruits when he ran a blazing 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the 2014 SPARQ Combine in Chicago. Years before that event, Nixon’s teammates knew he might be bound for NFL glory shortly after he moved to Florida from Arizona. On Day 1 of a little league football practice, he received a handoff and zoomed past the entire team for a touchdown.
Nixon finished his senior season with 79 catches for 1,243 yards with 18 touchdowns as Viera won the first four postseason games in the school’s history.
Viera was only in position to play Cocoa because of a vow Nixon and his teammates made back when they were in middle school.
Around that time, Nixon and his future high school teammates — his brother Devin, who’s one year older, cornerback Evan Cruz and quarterback Hayden Kingston, among them — made a pact that Viera would no longer be doormats in the Florida high school landscape. They’d no longer be the team other schools scheduled as the homecoming game for an easy win.
“We made it known the mindset needs to change at Viera, but if it starts with our class, it’s going to be our class,” Cruz told NESN.com. “We all wanted to play college football at that point. At an early age, we all surrounded ourselves — me and Tre and Hayden, our friends — we surrounded ourselves with the right people, and we just got better every day. Tre was at the park every day. Every day with his brother.”
Kevin Mays, Viera’s head coach at the time, led his team to the postseason for the first time in school history during Devin’s final season in 2014. During Tre’s final season, Viera won four postseason games before losing to perennial powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High School (Patriots running back James White — along with a slew of other star NFL players — is an alumni) in the 2015 state championship.
“You can tell when you’re going to have a good team in high school when your best players are your hardest workers in the classroom, on the field, everything,” Mays said. “And he was a kid who really was kind of first-in, last-out type guy. Just his work ethic of wanting to be great was instilled in him at a young age.”
Nixon received 46 offers out of high school before settling on Ole Miss. He caught one pass for 19 yards in 2017 as a redshirt freshman before transferring to UCF. He immediately showcased why he was a high recruit, catching 40 passes for 562 yards with four touchdowns as a sophomore and 40 passes for 830 yards with seven touchdowns as a junior. He should have broken out as a redshirt senior in 2020.
But in UCF’s season opener against Georgia Tech, Nixon beat massive Georgia Tech cornerback Zamari Walton for a 25-yard touchdown. Walton landed on Nixon awkwardly while trying to dislodge the ball and dislocated the wide receiver’s collarbone.
Nixon missed the Knights’ next six games which tanked his draft stock. He returned for their final three contests and caught 13 passes for 166 yards before entering the draft.
Without the injury, Nixon easily could have been a Day 2 or early Day 3 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. As a 23-year-old redshirt senior who missed most of his final college season, Nixon entered UCF’s pro day on April 1 with a strong chance that he wouldn’t hear his name called at all. He responded by running a 4.44-second 40-yard dash with a 6.81-second 3-cone drill, 4.25-second short shuttle, 35.5-inch vertical leap, 10-feet, 5-inch broad jump and 18 reps of 225 pounds at 6-feet, 187 pounds.
Tre Nixon, Devin Nixon, Mays, Cruz and Nixon’s girlfriend, Savannah, gathered at Nixon’s mom’s house for the final day of the draft back where it all started in Viera. It was a tense day as they watched the picks scroll by on the draft broadcast.
As the event was drawing to a close and Nixon saw wide receivers coming off the board, he started resigning to the possibility that his dream of getting drafted could be dashed and that he might need to catch on with a team as an undrafted free agent. Teams that were interested in Nixon as a priority free agent started calling his agent in the sixth round.
The team at the top of Nixon’s list, however, was the Patriots. They hadn’t drafted a wide receiver, and with Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski, Kristian Wilkerson, Isaiah Zuber and Devin Smith filling out the depth chart, New England was one of the destinations where it’s reasonable to believe a late-round or undrafted wide receiver could make the team. Nixon was even saying at the time that he could see himself playing in a Patriots uniform for Belichick.
“Every player wants to go as early as they can but you could see the stress kind of building on him the later it got,” Mays said. “That’s probably the most I’ve talked in a long time because I was trying to keep his mind off things. You hear about those stories of anybody not getting drafted or picked. It wears on them. You can’t help but let it wear on you.”
With 18 picks until the draft was over, a number with a Massachusetts area code flashed on Nixon’s phone.
“Yeah, is this Tre? Hey Tre, this is Ernie Adams with the New England Patriots,” Adams said as captured by the Patriots’ social media team. “I’m sure you’ve got your TV on watching the draft but we’re drafting you here in the seventh round. I just want to welcome you to the team, and I’ve got — Coach Belichick’s coming right here momentarily, so again, welcome to the Patriots I’m giving the phone to Coach Belichick.”
“Hey Tre, how are you doing? Congratulations, this is Bill Belichick,” Belichick said, via the Patriots’ social media team. “Great to have you with us. You just talked to Coach Adams. He personally selected you. He made this pick, and he selected a lot of players in his career.”
The tension was lifted.
“He started crying, mom started crying. It was a real emotional time,” Mays said. “You could see the weight of the world lifted off of him. Then he just kind of screamed as he hung the phone up. You put 21, 22 years of hard work in to see your dream come true, it’s a pretty special moment to be there.”
“It was probably one of the biggest, most emotional times of my life that I will always remember for the rest of my life,” Nixon said after being picked. “It was a huge blessing. God makes no mistakes and I was just really, really happy to share that moment with me and my family. Like I said, it’s a moment I’ll tell my grandkids about and I’ll never forget it. I’m very blessed.”
Nixon’s neighbors started pounding on his door and giving thumbs ups through the back windows.
“It was crazy,” Cruz said. “The whole neighborhood was happy for him. Just a lot of screaming. He was very high emotion, obviously. Very happy, excited. It’s good to see that and have his mother by him, his girlfriend, his brother. All the people that are close to him and care about him a lot on that special day.”
There’s a reason 46 colleges offered Nixon a scholarship. There’s a reason Nixon was on the 2020 Biletnikoff Award watch list before his injury. His high school career played out about as well as anyone could have anticipated. College was another story.
Now Nixon has a chance to reverse the Patriots’ — as well as his own — course and become the next Givens.
Maybe Ernie knows something.