Tom Brady left the Patriots because he didn’t have enough help. There were other reasons, too, like Brady’s deteriorating relationship with Bill Belichick, an intense contract dispute in 2019, and the constant, gnawing sense that the organization known for “moving on one year too early rather than one year too late” would eventually do the same to Brady. But we couldn’t see those on the field. What we could see was Brady trying to force the ball to a hobbling Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett. So when Brady left New England in 2020 to go to Tampa Bay—which had Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at wideout, plus O.J. Howard at tight end—the implication was obvious: Brady wanted better receivers.
Wide receiver is infamously the position the Patriots have been worst at drafting and developing over the past 20 years. Belichick and Co. have proved themselves to be expert bargain-hunters almost everywhere else on the roster, but receiver has managed to stifle them. This narrative will be omnipresent over the weekend as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time for Sunday Night Football.
But just how bad were the Patriots’ receiver picks? Let’s go through the team’s last 20 drafts, starting at the beginning of the Brady-Belichick era and rolling through Brady’s last season in 2019.
Round 2, Pick 65: Deion Branch
Round 7, Pick 253: David Givens
This is easily New England’s best receiver draft. Branch led the Pats in receiving twice and was the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP (for the love of all that is holy, can we just call this Super Bowl 39?). But following that championship, Branch had a contract dispute with the Patriots and was traded to the Seahawks one week into the 2006 season.
Givens was a seventh-round pick who scored a touchdown in seven consecutive playoff games. He also set the record for Patriots playoff touchdowns (until tight end Rob Gronkowski broke it in 2016). These two were great, but things only go down from here ...
Round 2, Pick 45: WR Bethel Johnson
Belichick said a few years ago that Johnson was the fastest kick returner he’s ever coached. Johnson played receiver and ran track at Texas A&M, and the Patriots were hoping to turn him into a real pass-catching threat in the NFL. “Belichick actually taught me to play wide receiver,” Johnson told ESPN’s Mike Reiss in 2018.
Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out. Johnson had a decent rookie season—16 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns—but across three more NFL seasons, he never beat those numbers.
Nine picks after Johnson was taken, the Arizona Cardinals drafted Anquan Boldin, who had seven 1,000-yard seasons in a 14-year career. Boldin had more receiving yards in his first NFL game (217) than Johnson did his entire rookie season.
Round 5, Pick 164: WR P.K. Sam
Sam appeared in just two NFL games and never caught a pass.
Round 2, Pick 36: WR Chad Jackson
Jackson was such an exciting receiver prospect out of Florida that New England traded up to get him. (Yes, the Patriots traded up.) Jackson’s huge hype was met with a huge opportunity: Givens left for Tennessee that offseason, and Branch went to Seattle after Week 1. So Jackson had the chance to become the no. 1 option.
In his first career game, Jackson had two catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. He never surpassed any of those totals in another game. A groin injury derailed his rookie season. He got buried on the Randy Moss–Wes Welker–Donté Stallworth depth chart in 2007. He failed to replace Stallworth and was cut after the preseason in 2008. Jackson, the 36th pick in the draft, finished his career with 171 receiving yards.
Oh, and about that trade: To move up to take Jackson, New England sent the 52nd and 75th picks in that draft to the Packers, who used the 52nd pick on wide receiver Greg Jennings. Jennings was Green Bay’s no. 1 receiver for years and finished his career with 8,291 yards, which would rank second on New England’s all-time leaderboard.
Round 4, Pick 110: Traded for Randy Moss
Time to give the Patriots some credit. This was one of the best trades in NFL history. Moss wanted out of Oakland because he believed he needed to win a Super Bowl to be considered an all-time great. And after landing in New England, Moss promptly set the NFL record for receiving touchdowns in a season (23). The Patriots also signed Welker in free agency that year and modernized the slot receiver position as we know it. But while they went 16-0 in the regular season, they didn’t get that Super Bowl win—all because of David Tyree and the Giants.
Round 5, Pick 153: WR Matthew Slater
Against all odds, Slater is still on the Patriots as their special teams captain. He is the longest-tenured player on the team, and has more Pro Bowls than Adrian Peterson, Troy Aikman, and Randy Moss. But he has exactly one career catch to his name.
Round 3, Pick 83: Brandon Tate
Round 7, Pick 232: Julian Edelman
Edelman is the second-best late-round gem of the Patriots dynasty, after Brady himself. Edelman, Gronk, and Brady formed the trio that defined the Pats offense across their second trilogy of Super Bowl wins. Edelman stepped into Welker’s role as New England’s slot machine in 2013 and became one of the most clutch postseason receivers ever. He caught the pass in New England’s Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons in February 2017, was named Super Bowl MVP against the Rams in February 2019, and is one of just two players with more than 100 career catches in the playoffs (the other being Jerry Rice). He had about as good of a career as a seventh-round player could dream of.
Tate, on the other hand, never made his mark. He had just 24 catches in his first two seasons with the Patriots and failed to separate himself as a receiver. He was cut before his third year, though he stuck around the league for a decade as a punt and kick returner.
One pick after the Patriots drafted Tate, the Steelers used the 84th selection on receiver Mike Wallace, who had a long and successful career in Pittsburgh (he finished his career with 8,072 receiving yards and 57 career touchdowns). Wallace ended up with better statistics in seven career games facing the Patriots (589 yards and five touchdowns) than Tate did in his entire Patriots career (432 yards and three touchdowns).
Round 3, Pick 90: Taylor Price
This is the draft where the Patriots landed Rob Gronkowski, one of the best picks of all time, so knocking New England for Taylor Price feels harsh. But Price, a third-round pick, finished his career with 80 receiving yards. Eighty! The Patriots cut him in December of his second season after Edelman, Tiquan Underwood, and Chad Johnson (then Ochocinco) passed him on the depth chart. As ESPN’s Mike Reiss wrote at the time, “Price arrived as a great athlete that the Patriots hoped would become a great receiver. That transformation never happened.”
Round 7, Pick 235: WR Jeremy Ebert
Ebert caught zero passes his rookie year and was out of football after two seasons.
Round 2, Pick 59: WR Aaron Dobson
Round 4, Pick 102: WR Josh Boyce
Undrafted Free Agent: Kenbrell Thompkins
Dobson was the highest-drafted Patriots receiver since Chad Jackson, and he looked good initially, hauling in 519 yards as a rookie. But then a foot sprain, hamstring issues, and a high ankle sprain limited Dobson to 179 receiving yards over his next two seasons combined. The Patriots cut him before his fourth year. While Dobson was drafted 59th, the next two wide receivers taken after him were:
- Pick no. 74: Terrance Williams, who started for Dallas for five seasons
- Pick no. 76: Keenan Allen, who has been a top-10 NFL wide receiver for the better part of the last decade
Boyce, New England’s fourth-rounder in this draft, had nine catches in two seasons.
The Patriots did scoop up undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins from this class, and he looked good as a rookie—even earning praise from Brady, who called Thompkins one of his most trusted receivers. But he was waived midway through his second season.
Round 7, Pick 244: Jeremy Gallon
Gallon set receiving records at Michigan but didn’t make New England’s 53-man roster.
Round 4, Pick 112: WR Malcolm Mitchell
Round 7, Pick 225: WR Devin Lucien
Mitchell had a promising rookie season, with 401 yards and four touchdowns, plus six catches for 70 yards in New England’s Super Bowl win over the Falcons. But he lasted just two seasons before retiring. He had so many injuries throughout his career that he told Boston.com, “I started spending more time on crutches than my own two feet.”
Round 6 Pick 210: WR Braxton Berrios
Berrios was waived by the Patriots after his rookie season and has been with the Jets ever since. Through three weeks this season, he leads the Jets in catches and yards.
Round 1, Pick 32: N’Keal Harry
UDFA: Jakobi Meyers
Perhaps sensing that Brady needed some help, the Patriots spent their highest draft pick on a wideout since they took Terry Glenn seventh overall in 1996. But that pick, N’Keal Harry, was limited to a measly 105 yards as a rookie after suffering an ankle injury. And last season, he managed just 309 yards with Cam Newton. Harry’s agent publicly requested a trade this offseason, which was, uh, not granted.
Before the 2019 draft, some New England scouts preferred Deebo Samuel and A.J. Brown over Harry, according to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. “Harry killed his 30 visit that spring and had a college coach, Todd Graham, who was close to Belichick,” Breer wrote. “In that end, without more input from scouts who preferred Deebo Samuel and A.J. Brown, [Belichick] wound up leaning on his own experience with Harry, rather than the red flags his scouts planted, and lost a golden opportunity to fill a hole on his roster.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Patriots traded the 64th pick in this draft to Seattle, who used it to select DK Metcalf.
Meyers, an undrafted free agent, leads the team in targets, receptions, and receiving yards this season. He does not have a touchdown yet in his three seasons—he actually has the most catches in NFL history without a touchdown reception (by a lot!). But he’s looked like the most promising homegrown Pats receiver in years—though that’s a low bar. There’s a serious chance that Meyers will become the second-best receiver on this list, right after Edelman, the seventh-round converted college quarterback.
So what conclusions can we draw from that exercise? A few notes.
The lack of production is disgusting.
The consistently terrible production from this group is stunning, particularly the highly drafted players. From 2003 to 2016, the Patriots drafted seven wide receivers in the first four rounds. Zero finished their rookie contracts with the team (they averaged 328 receiving yards across their entire Patriots careers), and if Harry doesn’t make it past his rookie deal—and that isn’t looking likely—the Pats will be 0-for-8 on wide receivers drafted in the first four rounds from 2003 to 2019.
The list of players they could have had instead is stomach-churning. Yes, we’re benefiting from hindsight here, but even if we just pick an objective measure, like focusing on the first or second receivers selected after the Patriots drafted a receiver, things look pretty bad: Anquan Boldin was the next receiver taken after Bethel Johnson; Greg Jennings was taken with the pick the Patriots traded to get Chad Jackson; Mike Wallace was taken one pick after Brandon Tate; Keenan Allen was taken two receivers after Aaron Dobson; and A.J. Brown was taken two receivers after N’Keal Harry (and we’re not even counting that the Patriots traded out of the slot Seattle used to select DK Metcalf). If we compare that group side-by-side with the receivers New England took … well, see for yourself:
- Patriots WRs drafted in Rounds 1-4 from 2003 to 2019 (combined careers): 209 catches for 2,709 yards, 22 touchdowns
- WRs New England could have had (combined careers): 2,959 catches for 40,015 yards and 266 touchdowns
The latter group has more touchdown catches than the former group has catches. Boldin, Wallace, Allen, and Jennings all individually surpassed what the Pats receivers accomplished collectively.
The tight end picks were good … until they weren’t.
We can’t rip New England’s receiving picks without mentioning the tight ends. The team drafted Benjamin Watson in 2004, and he played for 16 seasons while also submitting an all-time hustleporn play (SFW). Rob Gronkowski, a second-rounder in 2010, is perhaps the greatest tight end in NFL history. Gronk had 65 receiving touchdowns in just his first six seasons, which was the third most for a tight end all time, and he did that before he turned 27. It took Gronk 80 games to surpass what Shannon Sharpe and Jason Witten did in more than 200. He was also an elite blocker. But once Gronkowski retired, the Patriots had no answers.
Last year, New England turned to 2018 seventh-rounder Ryan Izzo and its pair of third-round rookies, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, essentially punting at the position all together. As a unit last season, New England’s tight ends gave them just 254 yards (which ranked second to last among all teams), eight first downs (last), and 18 catches (also last). The 18 catches were tied with the 2016 Jets for the second fewest from the tight end position over the past decade, according to ESPN’s Mike Clay. No wonder the Patriots splurged on Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry in free agency this year.
The 2019 wide receiver group was especially dreadful.
The team Brady left was decrepit. In his final season, Brady’s receiving corps consisted of 33-year-old Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Mohamed Sanu, and undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers. That team had zero wide receivers or tight ends with a 75.0 Pro Football Focus receiving grade or higher. In 2020, Brady had six players in that group, plus Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller, who would have been two of New England’s better wide receivers over the past two seasons.
Brady said earlier this year that it’s hard to play receiver in the NFL, especially in players’ early years. “Everything is new,” Brady told NBC’s Peter King. “You have a play, then I change the play, then I look at you and I change the route, then I see a defense that we didn’t necessarily talk about. Every play I’m like, ‘Hey, this is what I’m thinking.’ And you gotta have someone who can take the critique.”
When Brady takes the field in Foxborough this week, he will be surrounded by the most talented receiving group he’s had in more than a decade. The Patriots, on the other hand, will have Meyers, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne. The reasons Brady left are hard to parse, but the help he’s gained will be easy to see.