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Bill Belichick’s inability to draft wide receivers is the Patriots’ biggest blind spot

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There’s Julian Edelman, Deion Branch, and then a whole bunch of since-forgotten names.

New England Patriots Rookie Camp Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Since he became the New England Patriots head coach in 2000, Bill Belichick has done a great job of creating a winning culture in Foxborough. He’s been able to do just about everything — except consistently draft quality wide receivers.

The 64-year-old coached some great defenses, drafted star quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, and surrounded himself with some of the best coaching staffs the NFL has ever seen.

Belichick is a four-time Super Bowl-winning head coach. He has a chance to hoist his fifth Lombardi Trophy on Sunday if the Patriots can defeat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

On the other hand, for all of his strengths as a head coach, he does have one glaring weakness: wide receivers. Throughout Brady’s career, he has had to throw to a revolving door of receivers.

With a quarterback like him, you do not need top-notch receivers. Brady has always found a way to make plays. The 39-year-old has thrown touchdown passes to players like Daniel Graham, Matt Lengel, Alge Crumpler, and Sam Aiken throughout a celebrated career.

Those aren't exactly household names. In fact, Brady has thrown at least one touchdown pass to 64 players over the course of his career — a mark that trails only journeyman quarterback Vinny Testaverde in league record books.

Why is his spread of end zone targets so large? Because Belichick has struggled to identify and develop star receivers through the NFL draft.

As a head coach for the Cleveland Browns and Patriots, his teams have drafted 23 receivers. Julian Edelman is the only receiver to register a 1,000-yard season under Belichick. Deion Branch, who had 998 yards in 2005, came close. Other than those two, no Belichick-era receiver has come close to stardom after being drafted by New England.

Patriots receiver draftees since 2000

Year Rnd Pick Name Pos Rec Yds TD
Year Rnd Pick Name Pos Rec Yds TD
2016 4 112 Malcolm Mitchell WR 32 401 4
2016 7 225 Devin Lucien WR
2014 7 244 Jeremy Gallon WR
2013 2 59 Aaron Dobson WR 53 698 4
2013 4 102 Josh Boyce WR 9 121 0
2012 7 235 Jeremy Ebert WR 3 18 0
2010 3 90 Taylor Price WR 5 80 0
2009 3 83 Brandon Tate WR 65 1018 6
2009 7 232 Julian Edelman WR 425 4540 24
2008 5 153 Matt Slater WR 1 46 0
2006 2 36 Chad Jackson WR 14 171 3
2004 5 164 P.K. Sam WR
2003 2 45 Bethel Johnson WR 39 606 4
2002 2 65 Deion Branch WR 518 6644 39
2002 7 253 David Givens WR 166 2318 12

None of the wide receivers the three-time AP Coach of the Year drafted with the Patriots has ever racked up more than eight receiving touchdowns. Edelman, his biggest success story, didn’t even play wideout in college; he was a jack-of-all-trades quarterback at Kent State.

That blind spot doesn’t carry over to other pass-catching positions. Belichick’s WR draftees in New England have combined for six Pro Bowl appearances among them, but all come thanks to special teamer Matt Slater. Meanwhile, his tight end draftees — who include standouts like Ben Watson, Graham, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski — have four Pro Bowl honors of their own.

So who have the Patriots turned to without a homegrown receiving threat to complement Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski?

Typically, they’ll wait for other teams to dust off some undrafted free-agent gems and roll them into the starting lineup, like Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan. Other times, they’ll buy low in hopes of resuscitating a formerly enticing prospect’s career — i.e. Randy Moss or, less notably, Reche Caldwell.

Patriots leading WRs, 2000-2016 -

Year Name Rec Yds TD Acquired?
Year Name Rec Yds TD Acquired?
2016 Julian Edelman 98 1,106 3 Drafted
2015 Danny Amendola 65 648 3 Free Agent
2014 Julian Edelman 92 972 4 Drafted
2013 Julian Edelman 105 1,056 6 Drafted
2012 Wes Welker 118 1,354 6 Trade
2011 Wes Welker 122 1,569 9 Trade
2010 Wes Welker 86 848 7 Trade
2009 Wes Welker 123 1,348 4 Trade
2008 Wes Welker 111 1,165 3 Trade
2007 Randy Moss 98 1,493 23 Trade
2006 Reche Caldwell 61 760 4 Free Agent
2005 Deion Branch 78 998 5 Drafted
2004 David Givens 56 874 3 Drafted
2003 Deion Branch 57 803 3 Drafted
2002 Troy Brown 97 890 3 Drafted
2001 Troy Brown 101 1,199 5 Drafted
2000 Terry Glenn 79 963 6 Drafted
Drafted AVG: 85 985 4
FA/Traded AVG: 98 1,148 7

As the table above shows, the top wideouts the Patriots bring to the roster in free agency or via trade have been significantly more productive than their homegrown counterparts. Despite rarely making a splash with a flashy name — Moss is the exception —they’ve gleaned big results from unheralded young veterans, thanks to Brady’s wizardry in the pocket.

Malcolm Mitchell’s promising rookie year could be evidence this trend is changing, but his awful postseason performance (one catch for five yards on four targets, including a drive-killing drop) doesn’t inspire much confidence. He’ll have a ways to go to prove he isn’t another Aaron Dobson, Bethel Johnson, or Chad Jackson.

There aren’t many weak spots in the dynasty Belichick has built on the foundation of a legendary quarterback, but drafting and developing receivers has been the biggest one.