Future of Foxboro: Deep wide receiver class gives the Patriots a chance to unearth a gem

Mecole Hardman of the Georgia Bulldogs makes a catch for a second quarter touchdown against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 24, 2018 at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Mecole Hardman of the Georgia Bulldogs makes a catch for a second quarter touchdown against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 24, 2018 at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots' draft history at wide receiver won't inspire confidence.

No matter the factors, receiver has simply been a blind spot for Bill Belichick. Especially compared to positions where the Patriots head coach typically excels in the draft, like offensive and defensive line. He's made a couple of pretty good picks at quarterback and tight end, too.

But at wide receiver? The duds far outweigh the studs. And Belichick's best picks at the position have come later on in the NFL Draft.

Good thing for Belichick, then, that he could unearth some fresh gems beyond the first two rounds.

Not that he should simply avoid making another early pick at wide receiver. Just because former second-rounders Bethel Johnson (2003), Chad Jackson (2006), and Aaron Dobson (2013) didn't pan out like expected doesn't mean the Patriots couldn't go back to that well and dig up the next Deion Branch (2002). But the most famous recent example of a drafted receiver that worked - Julian Edelman in 2009 - shows that Belichick can hunt the mid-to-late rounds for a receiver who fits the Pats with the chance to develop into something greater.

It may be time to brace for Belichick doing a little of both.

The Patriots have shown heightened interest in wide receivers ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft. And they won't necessarily need to take one at No. 32 to get a good one. With no true standout, transcendent talent at the position in this year's class, there's a good chance that the best receiver of the bunch falls outside the first round.

But if Belichick does decide he wants to go the receiver with his first pick - an unprecedented move in his Patriots tenure - there's one pick in that range who makes more sense than others.

The Pick: A.J. Brown, Ole Miss

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 04: A.J. Brown of the Mississippi Rebels runs for a touchdown against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 04: A.J. Brown of the Mississippi Rebels runs for a touchdown against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Brown ran a 6.89 in the three-cone drill at Ole Miss' Pro Day, which would've ranked him sixth among all receivers at the Combine. He takes a lot of pride in his route-running, which is polished. Brown has no problem throwing a block with his 6-foot, 225-pound frame, or making tough catches over the middle. He can make plays after the catch, too.

He's one of several receiver prospects reported to meet with the Patriots for a pre-draft visit. But he's on a smaller list: receivers who have the upside to go in the first round. Brown's skill set and versatility would give him an opportunity to make an immediate impact.

That, of course, has been rare for Patriots receivers under Belichick. But Brown is closer to "can't-miss" than other wideouts he's drafted high in the past. His perceived weaknesses - namely, a lack of top-end downfield speed - would be easily covered up in the Patriots' system. And he's revered at Ole Miss for his competitive nature.

Sounds like a Patriots kind of receiver. So if Belichick decides to go the WR route at No. 32, Brown may very well be his guy.

What about later?

JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 27: Mecole Hardman of the Georgia Bulldogs returns a kick during a game against the Florida Gators at TIAA Bank Field. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 27: Mecole Hardman of the Georgia Bulldogs returns a kick during a game against the Florida Gators at TIAA Bank Field. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

With a lack of certainty behind Julian Edelman at the position, the Patriots almost have to draft someone just to fill out the camp depth chart. Fortunately, their interest in wide receivers this year looks serious. They've met with several prospects. Some of them performed highly in their favorite Combine event, the three-cone drill.

Here's a quick look at who else is on their radar ahead of the NFL Draft. They'll be available in the second, third, and fourth rounds, if not later.

-- Round 2: Deebo Samuel, South Carolina. Visited the Patriots and gave Bill Belichick a peculiar shoutout. Tough and competitive, both mentally and physically on the field. Wins contested catches and plays over the middle. Dangerous after the catch. Can also return kicks.

-- Round 3: Mecole Hardman, Georgia. One of the fastest players in the draft with a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash. Bill Belichick personally scouted him at Georgia's Pro Day. Hardman visited the team in Foxborough. Known for short-area quickness and home-run potential with the ball in his hands. Explosive punt returner. Compared to Tyreek Hill and Tyler Lockett.

-- Round 4: Miles Boykin, Notre Dame. Led all receivers in the three-cone drill. Combines that agility with great size (6-foot-4) and arm length. Helps him go vertical for catches down the field. May need work on his route-running and using his size more to his advantage, which likely drops him out of the first 2-3 rounds. But he has the traits to be a good outside receiver for Tom Brady.

-- Round 4: Hunter Renfrow, Clemson. Known for his clutch play for the Clemson Tigers in big games. Tough, sure-handed slot receiver who isn't afraid to make contested catches. Third-best three-cone time (6.80) among all receivers, giving him the ability to get open early in his routes. His lack of size and speed drops him to the middle rounds, but he's long been considered a Patriots type of prospect.

-- Round 5 or later: Greg Dortch, Wake Forest. Severely undersized at 5-foot-7, but tougher than his diminutive frame would indicate. Good short-area quickness and elusiveness after the catch. Returned both kicks and punts at Wake Forest.

A New Era?

Demaryius Thomas, Bruce Ellington, and Maurice Harris are all question marks to even make it through camp for the Patriots. Sophomore Braxton Berrios may not be ready to make a jump after spending his rookie season on IR. So it would behoove the Patriots to continue to add to the WR depth chart from a deep, diverse class in the 2019 NFL Draft.

More worried about the tight end position? Here's who could be on the Pats' radar in their post-Gronk reset.

Matt Dolloff is a 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 [email protected].