By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
If the last two years are any indication, the Patriots will address part of their receiver corps via trade. And their target could be a talented-but-disappointing player for a fraction of his original cost.
Bill Belichick’s recent history suggests he’s turned to adding wide receivers that originally entered the league as highly touted first-round picks. Brandin Cooks is one who actually lived up to his billing early on, which is why he’s been traded for a first-round pick twice. But Cooks’ value mainly lied in his rookie deal salary; other additions have come at that price before they panned out.
Phillip Dorsett came to New England at a unique cost, as quarterback Jacoby Brissett went to the Colts for the former 2015 first-round pick. A key player down the stretch in 2018, Dorsett scored two touchdowns in three playoff games in his second season with the Patriots. Brissett appears destined for serviceable backup territory, so that swap arguably worked out for the Super Bowl LIII champions, even if Dorsett doesn’t return in 2019.
Cordarrelle Patterson, meanwhile, was their clearest home-run swing. It only took a swap of fifth- and sixth-round picks for the Patriots to absorb Patterson from the Raiders last offseason. He was essentially the same player he’s been throughout his career: he was dangerous with the ball in his hands, delivered a key 95-yard touchdown return in Week 7 against the Bears, and yet couldn’t consistently produce as a downfield receiver.
The Pats also gave former 2016 first-rounder Corey Coleman a shot early in the 2018 season, but soon released him from the practice squad. Midseason addition Josh Gordon wasn’t a first-round pick, but he has that kind of ability.
They’ve taken an especially sharp focus on this kind of receiver. Former high draft picks with untapped upside, in the back ends of their rookie deals, who for whatever reason haven’t gone to the next level. Belichick would rather let other teams burn their first-round picks on them. He’s content to collect these receivers later on and see if he can make them work.
The results have been mixed. But there’s a bigger reset coming at wide receiver, with the Patriots in need of talent at the position once again. Part of the reform potentially includes another low-risk trade that aims for high rewards. If Belichick wants to continue this approach, some notable players fit the profile.
Josh Doctson, Redskins
Doctson dealt with an Achilles injury as a rookie and a frustrating lack of progression since then. The 22nd overall pick in 2016 actually led all Redskins wide receivers with 44 catches and 532 yards this past season, but that’s more of a statement against the team. If the Redskins want to move on from Doctson they’ll have to trade him in order to save any dead cap space, so perhaps they oblige if Patriots pounce with a worthwhile offer.
Doctson would be due $1.8 million in salary and just under $3.2 million against the cap. Perhaps Belichick and Brady try to unlock his big-play potential. The question would be whether they can make him a weapon in the underneath areas and in the red zone. The athletic Doctson does have the talent to beat one-on-one matchups downfield as an “X” receiver, but he has yet to do it consistently.
Laquon Treadwell, Vikings
As disappointing as Doctson is so far in Washington, it’s been even more painful for Treadwell. He struggled with drops in 2018 as the Vikings eventually made him a healthy scratch in Week 16, then played him for just 14 snaps in Week 17 as he lost the No. 3 receiver job to Aldrick Robinson.
But Treadwell is also just 23 years old, has more traditional receiver qualities than Patterson without Gordon’s off-field baggage, and likely costs a similarly low price tag. He also remains quite confident in himself. Treadwell’s $1.8 million salary and $3.1 million cap charge wouldn’t burn down Foxborough if he didn’t work out. And if Belichick and Brady elevated him, they could have a big outside target and viable red zone threat.
John Ross, Bengals
Ross is best known for his eye-popping speed and quickness. Any receiver who goes No. 9 overall, like Ross did in 2017, has legitimate NFL talent. He made just 21 catches in his second NFL season, but seven of them went for touchdowns. At the same time, Ross barely got on the field as a rookie (three games, one start, 17 total snaps) and couldn’t muster more than three catches or 52 yards in a game as 2016 second-round pick Tyler Boyd passed him in the pecking order.
Ex-Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis also put Ross on blast in 2018 for an apparent lack of competitiveness on deep balls. Maybe Belichick sees an opportunity to get Ross while he still costs less than a first-round pick. The talent is definitely there. It’s a matter of getting him past the mental mistakes.
Sterling Shepard, Giants
Shepard is different from the others as a second-round pick (40th overall in 2016) who’s actually become a productive receiver for the Giants. He made a career-high 66 catches for 872 yards and four touchdowns in 2018 as their third-most targeted pass-catcher, behind Odell Beckham Jr. and dynamic running back Saquon Barkley.
That’s why a trade like this wouldn’t necessarily come cheaply. It’s a matter of convincing the Giants to move on from Shepard instead of trying to sign him long-term, which wouldn’t seem easy. But Belichick could find value on Shepard by adding potential first-round production at the cost of a second- or third-round pick, rather than the going rate for guys like Cooks (twice) and Amari Cooper. Shepard would be no pick-swap, but the 25-year-old would also be an excellent fit for the Pats with his route-running, competitiveness, and ability to line up inside or outside as a “Z” receiver.
As recent additions like Patterson and Gordon show, the Patriots don’t always go for the same kind of receiver. Just because these guys might not seem like perfect Patriots doesn’t necessarily mean Belichick wouldn’t try to make them one. Adding receivers with first-round pedigrees can at least ensure that they have guys who were impressive prospects at one point. Belichick can trust his program from there to get the most out of them.
At least one spot on the Patriots’ receiver depth chart could be filled this way. Keep these names in mind for possible under-the-radar targets in an offseason that promises plenty of new faces.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.