Aaron Dobson, who stands 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, was drafted by the Patriots in April. (AP)
This offseason, the Patriots lost wide receivers Wes Welker (5-foot-9, 185 pounds), Deion Branch (5-9, 195) and Brandon Lloyd (6-0, 200). They also lost Danny Woodhead (5-8, 200), who in 2012 became the first New England running back to finish with at 40 catches and 40 carries since Kevin Faulk turned the trick in 2008. In their place, the Patriots picked up several new faces, most of whom are considerably bigger guys than the ones who departed in the offseason.
Free agent signings
Mike Jenkins (6-4, 214)
Donald Jones (6-0, 208)
Danny Amendola (5-11, 188)
Lavelle Hawkins (5-11, 194)
Aaron Dobson (6-3, 210)
Josh Boyce (5-11, 206)
Rookie/undrafted free agents
Mark Harrison (6-3, 231)
TJ Moe (6-0, 200)
Kenbrell Thompkins (6-0, 196)
This is not to suggest that the Patriots have made a concerted effort to go bigger at the receiver position, but the differentiation in size is interesting contrast, especially if you go back and take a look at the receivers New England has built around over the last decade. Prior to the pickup of Jenkins, the only other 6-foot-4 receiver on the roster the last decade was Randy Moss, who spent three-plus seasons with the Patriots from 2007-2010. (Going back to 2002, Donald Hayes also stood 6-4. In addition, J.J. Stokes, who spent part of the 2003 season in New England, stood 6-4.) And at 6-3, Dobson and P.K. Sam are the two tallest receivers the Patriots have drafted since Bill Belichick took over the team prior to the 2000 season.
But this current group not only has size, but speed to go with it. Boyce, Harrison and Moe all popped favorably at the combine when it came to both speed and quickness (Moe and Boyce were both in the top five in the 3-cone drill for all players, while Boyce and Harrison were in the top 12 in the 40 for wide receivers). According to alert Tweeter Mike Loyko, all of the receivers the Patriots picked up with the exception of Jenkins ran sub 4.5 40s as part of the pre-draft process. It appears that finding a combination of size and speed — particularly on the perimeter — was a priority for New England this offseason.
(The acquisitions certainly would be in line with what one opposing scout told us when it came to offseason priorities for the Patriots in late January: “The Patriots need to add a vertical speed player with some size to the offense. … The Patriots do have fast wide receivers, but they are small, and require [Tom] Brady to be more accurate on his deeper throws. And because of their size, they aren’t consistent vertical threats. What they need is a wide receiver who is a vertical threat, but is also big enough to be physical in press coverage.”)
One other area where that sort of size can come into play is in the red zone, particularly when running fade routes on jump balls. Dobson in particular showed a real knack for getting into the end zone as a collegian with 24 touchdown catches — 12 of his 49 receptions as a junior went for scores — and could provide Brady with another massive presence when it comes to pass plays inside the opponents’ 20. (The presence of a healthy Rob Gronkowski, combined with Dobson and another lengthy receiver, could change New England’s scoring philosophy when it gets inside the 20-yard line.)
Of course, size and success at the receiver position don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand in New England. The two most prolific receivers in franchise history — Welker and Troy Brown — were classic undersized targets who made their bones as terrific route-runners with an innate sense of what the quarterback wanted and where they needed to be at any given moment. Likewise, the career Foxboro failures of Sam (zero career catches), Hayes (12 catches in one season) Stokes (two catches in two games with the Patriots) or the 6-foot-1 Chad Jackson (13 catches in 14 games with New England) suggest that the connection can be overblown.
Do these moves suggest that the Patriots have changed their philosophy when it comes to identifying wide receivers who might fit in their system? With the radical offseason remake the Patriots have undertaken at the receiver position — and the move from undersized pass-catchers to bigger receivers — it’s clear that while the Patriots might not have decided to completely overhaul the way they identify, draft and develop wide receivers, they’ve certainly decided to tweak their approach. At the very least, they’ve given Brady some targets he’ll have no problem identifying.