Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the New England Patriots need more weapons on offense. Surely, if you compare NFL rosters among skill position players, the Patriots are near the bottom. They have the worst tight ends in football. There wide receivers have struggled. Nobody knows who will be the starting running back. It’s time for an upgrade.
The leading receiver in the 18-12 loss to the Denver Broncos was none other than third-down running back James White. As I revisited on Twitter, the track record for Patriots draft picks of skill position guys hasn’t been great since Bill Belichick took over the team. They haven’t had a productive skill player developed in house since White was drafted back in 2014. See for yourself.
While I hate to blame Belichick for winning six Super Bowls in 18 years, it’s clear that this is his weakness as the longtime coach and general manager of the team. Of the 42 skill position players drafted, I would classify eight of them as being good players on the team. Two of those eight are Matthew Slater, who doesn’t even play wide receiver, and Aaron Hernandez, who had his own issues. (It may be unfair to classify the tight ends taken in 2020, N’Keal Harry and Sony Michel as failures, but the initial returns haven’t exactly given reason for excitement).
The Patriots for a long time were able to make up for this by using their winning ways and aura to bring in talent. Luring some of the best skill players to Foxborough at maximum value. They did this with most notably Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon LaFell, Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett.
The amount of talent brought in has even allowed them to endure missing on guys like Chad Ochocinco. What we’ve seen the past couple of seasons is the Patriots have less success. Mohammed Sanu, Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon all came with hopes of being real weapons for the middling Patriots offense. Their lack of development has left major questions at the lead running back and wide receiver. Sony Michel and Damien Harris providing mixed results and Harry continuing to struggle. Cam Newton had more receiving yards than Harry on Sunday. But this is the Patriot way, and it’s clear that if the Patriots view themselves as a competitive team this season, they’ll need to go shopping like a mom on Black Friday.
It’s one thing to lose to the Denver Broncos, who aren’t a very good football team. It’s another thing altogether to watch that game and think “Tim Patrick would be our best player.”
No disrespect to Patrick, but he’s not exactly a world-beater. The Broncos did this without their three best weapons on offense. Running back Melvin Gordon, wide receiver Courtland Sutton and tight end Noah Fant were all out. They were still more explosive than the Patriots. The offense is overly reliant on Cam Newton to be borderline perfect to have success. He’s an elite player when healthy for sure, but a little help would never hurt. Here are the five skill position players New England could target at the trade deadline.
5. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Let’s just get this one out of the way now. As exciting as it is to think about the idea of Jones, I don’t see any chance that it happens. He would easily be the best wide receiver the Patriots have had since Moss, but they Moss was a steal. He had been middling with a bad Oakland Raiders team at the time and needed a restart. New England acquired Moss for a fourth-round draft pick at age 30. He immediately agreed to a new contract on the spot to take a pay cut.
Jones, meanwhile, would require New England to part with at least a first-round pick for the star wide receiver. Plus, his cap hit the next four years is roughly $20 million per year. While he would help solve a lot of problems on this Patriots team, this simply isn’t how they operate. I don’t see any chance that they pull this deal off for the cost and I think there are more reasonable options for New England that don’t require first-round picks.
4. David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
Njoku is an interesting case, as he requested a trade in the offseason. Rescinded that request. Now he may or may not have requested a trade again, as his touches are falling by the wayside to Austin Hooper and rookie Harrison Bryant. He was another tight end the Patriots did not take over Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene.
He was a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and still has talent. The question for Njoku has been consistent. With that being said, Njoku has one less reception than Ryan Izzo. Njoku is a third-string tight end. Izzo is the New England starter. For the team that revolutionized the tight end position with Gronk and Hernandez in 2010, they currently have used tight ends less than every other team in the NFL. A lot of it has to do with the lack of talent at the position on the roster, and Njoku would instantly become the most talented player at the position for the Patriots (Hell, he might be the most talented player on our offense).
Njouku is someone New England might be able to buy low on. He’s still got upside and fills a definite position of need on the team. Josh McDaniels knows how to use a tight end in his offense, and Newton loved his tight ends during his tenure in Carolina. This position needs to be better.
3. Will Fuller, Houston Texans
Yes, there’s a risk. He is injured easily. But it’s hard not to watch him in their last game against the Tennessee Titans and not think that the talent is tantalizing. He finished that game with six catches for 123 yards and a touchdown as the Texans fell to 1-5.
The Texans are in a weird spot. They just traded their best player this past offseason in Deandre Hopkins for pennies on the dollar, and now theoretically have slim chances of making the playoffs. They also fired their head coach, general manager and play-caller. It’s not clear who is making decisions and if they want to sell.
But if they do sell, New England should be at the front of the line. Fuller would be the best deep threat New England has had in what feels like a decade and would become the most explosive talent on the offense. He prevents a significant upgrade to the roster on an expiring contract.
2. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
I can’t stress enough how bad this position group is for the Patriots. Izzo had his best game in the blue and red last week and had an backbreaking fumble that killed a possession for the offense. It was still his best game on the team. If New England wants a known commodity, few are better than Rudolph.
Rudolph’s twilight of his career is essentially being wasted in Minnesota. With his receptions going down again, he’s become a red zone target only. But here’s the thing: he’s one of the best at it. Last season, despite only 39 catches, Rudolph finished in the top 20 for touchdowns receptions. He’s also versatile, and a good blocker in a strong Minnesota running game. He fits everything New England looks for at the position.
The knock on Rudolph would be his contract. He currently has nearly a $9 million cap hit this season and an average of $10 million in the next three seasons of his contract. But his dead cap money next season goes to about $4.35 million this offseason and $2.9 million after next season. Given his salary, Irv Smith looking like the future for the Vikings at the position and their current record, New England may be able to get Rudolph for virtually nothing.
1. Marvin Jones, Detroit Lions
This feels like an easy trade to make. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia have a rapport with one another, and Jones desperately needs a new team. He’s been virtually silent this season with the Lions, but has shown in the past his big play ability and explosiveness can be effective. Explosiveness is a word that hasn’t been in the Patriots vocabulary in almost three years. Jones could be a great answer to New England’s woes.
So far this season, Jones has been marginalized. He currently has 14 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown on the season. That is way below his pace from last season of 62 catches for 779 yards and nine touchdowns in only 13 games.
While his numbers seem pedestrian, keep in mind he’s in line with N’Keal Harry’s 166 yards and a touchdown. Jones’ 10.4 yards per reception in 2020, by far his lowest of his career, currently ranks fourth on the team. His worst season is about on average for New England, he’d be the team’s top option day one.
There’s not a lot of players that make more sense than Jones to New England, especially given that they can get a high caliber receiver at his lowest value in years.
Photo: (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)