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.
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
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 -
|2015||Danny Amendola||65||648||3||Free Agent|
|2006||Reche Caldwell||61||760||4||Free Agent|
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.