If the New England Patriots are going to move on from wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, as has been reported to be the plan by Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe, they have to have a contingency plan of some kind.
The problem is, right now, they have just two other receivers under contract for 2013: Matthew Slater and Kamar Aiken.
The Patriots could still be active in free agency and/or the draft in looking for an X (outside) receiver.
There's a caveat, though: recent reports indicate the Patriots will probably hang on to wide receiver Wes Welker at a price tag of somewhere around $8 million per year. That likely takes the Patriots out of the running for a top wide receiver, because they haven't historically invested top dollar in multiple players at the same position in the same year.
If they want a wide receiver who could come at a reasonable price tag and could replace Lloyd's production, they could turn to Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline. Their stat lines last year were eerily similar last year:
- Hartline: 74 receptions, 1,083 yards, touchdown
- Lloyd: 74 receptions, 911 yards, four touchdowns
Further analysis shows they're almost the same receiver, in terms of where and how they earn their keep.
Much like Lloyd, Hartline did a majority of his damage within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, but was more reliable on deep patterns. In 2012, Hartline hauled in 11 passes on 24 targets 20 yards or more downfield, as opposed to Lloyd's nine receptions on 34 such targets. Also, Hartline's success on deep passes came in an offense that was one of the league's worst at creating explosive plays in the passing game (Miami's 42 pass plays of 20 yards or more tied for eighth-fewest in the league in 2012).
Much like Lloyd, Hartline makes spectacular sideline catches, and won't contribute much in terms of yards after the catch. Much like Lloyd, Hartline doesn't offer a great deal of physicality on the outside, but understands how to get open against different looks.
So, again, if the Patriots want to replace Lloyd's statistical production at a similar price, and don't care about improving their offense, Hartline's the guy—assuming he's not brought back in Miami, and if the Dolphins have any common sense, they won't let that happen.
Then, of course, there's another question: is replacing Lloyd's statistical production the only thing that matters? Of course it isn't.
It might play a factor, but Lloyd's "replace-ability," as it were, is not based off purely his statistical production. It's based off what he brings to the table as a wide receiver—mostly within that 10-yard area off the line of scrimmage.
They already have two threats doing damage in that area in Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, and those two actually know how to pick up yards after the catch. Three's a crowd.
The Patriots need someone who can at least create the threat of a deep pass and win physical matchups on the outside. More importantly, perhaps, it's time to draft develop a wide receiver who will be around for the long term.
Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com did a case study and found that the Patriots value the three-cone drill heavily in evaluating wide receivers, consistently drafting players who finished in the top 10 in that drill at the combine.
They also value the 40-yard dash to some degree, having never drafted a wide receiver who ran slower than a 4.56 40 (besides Brandon Tate, who was recovering from a knee injury). He also found that the Patriots like to draft receivers right around 6'0" and 200 pounds.
In that mold, some receivers that fit the bill this year have been listed. One name in particular that stands out is Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope. On paper, he's everything the Patriots look for. The question is, will he measure up once he gets to New England?
Once they're in New England, the Patriots like receivers who:
- can line up all over the formation
- run precise routes
- can process a lot of information quickly at the snap
Foot quickness and strong route knowledge allow him to separate on outs, crosses, and jerk routes from the slot. Slows down in passing windows and finds room in zones to maximize his quarterback’s ability to find him.
That scouting report looks relatively ideal, and his experience in a pro style offense at Texas A&M would only help his transition to the Patriots. The problem with Swope is, many think him to be limited to a slot role in the NFL.
Tennessee Tech wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers finished in line with the measureables the Patriots look for, with a top 10 finish in the three-cone drill and a sub-4.56 40.
He is a little bit taller (6'2") and heavier (217 pounds) than the Patriots have targeted in the past, but they could use that. Patriots fans will love this description of Rogers, as provided by Rob Rang of CBS Sports:
Despite playing in the ultra-physical SEC, Rogers proved too strong for most teams to consider pressing. He's also versatile, showing the ability to line up outside, as well as in the slot.
In lieu of the current discussion, it feels odd to bring up Rogers as a possibility considering some off-field maturity issues and on-field effort concerns, including sloppy route-running and giving up on routes when the ball wasn't coming his way.
Josh Boyce isn't going to win a lot of jump balls at 5'11" with a 34-inch vertical jump, but his blazing speed and agility will surely have the Patriots scouts buzzing. So will his ability to line up in the slot and on the outside.
He has the ability to challenge also adept at picking up yards after the catch. NFL.com's scouting report mentions his good get-off at the line of scrimmage, using his quickness and burst to get past defenders. His ability to take big hits over the middle, shake through contact to get extra yards and win against press coverage has him looking much more physically tough than Lloyd.
Of course, the Patriots could always choose to step outside the box as they evolve their offense.
Tennessee's Justin Hunter looks like he could be a good candidate in that sense.
He didn't run the three-cone drill, but blazed a 4.44 40-yard dash and has the size the Patriots lack. His experience against SEC competition will only help his transition to the NFL.
There's little, if any, doubt that he has the tangibles. His scouting report on NFL.com reads like a gospel of what the Patriots are missing at wide receiver:
Prototypical height for an outside NFL receiver, though he will line up in the slot to test defenses over the middle. Straight-line speed appears more than sufficient for his size, can burst past corners down the sideline, and long strides that make it difficult for cornerbacks to recover once beaten.
There are concerns about his knee after blowing out his ACL in 2011, but he came back with a highly productive 2012 campaign where his biggest problem was mental more than physical, resulting in some drops. His ability to dominate SEC competition should have the Patriots looking his way.
If the Patriots want a receiver who could be everything they need in a Lloyd replacement, one more option could be Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton. He finished just inside the Patriots preferred range for a 40-yard dash at 4.53, but he's a projected second-round pick, and the Patriots have never used one on someone to run above a 4.47. Again, we're thinking outside the box here.
Patton would provide much the same sideline acrobatics we've seen from Lloyd, but could also add a downfield threat and a real threat to win in jump ball situations.
The problem in trying to scout receivers to the Patriots is that they greatly value a receiver's mental aptitude and ability to quickly process information and learn a complex playbook.
Those are areas where we don't have as much insight, but if any of the receivers mentioned here fits the bill, it's safe to say they would eventually address the concerns Lloyd has been unable to in his time with the Patriots.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand or via team press releases.