The last time the Patriots seemed to feel comfortable with their wide receiver depth, they owned five Lombardi trophies, Nick Foles reigned as Super Bowl MVP and the Winter Olympics were just concluding.
Starting with the 2018 offseason, wide receiver has burned an undying hole in the team's roster. Months later, it was a minor miracle the Pats offense — without a revitalized Josh Gordon — averaged more than 30 points per game in the playoffs; let alone the fact another wideout, Julian Edelman, eventually won Super Bowl MVP.
Then N'Keal Harry was supposed to fill that void in 2019, before Antonio Brown and Mohamed Sanu. Their inability to make a lasting impact has since cost the Pats cap space, a second-round pick and potentially, a wasted first-rounder, too.
There is still hope, of course, for the 22-year-old Harry. And Sanu, despite the fact he turns 31 this summer.
However, expecting either Harry or Sanu to suddenly join Edelman as a legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 threat in 2020 is unreasonable. It's why the Pats are soon projected to dip into the deepest receiver draft class in years and pull out some help. But rookie wideouts' on-field track record in New England is suspect at best.
Would the Pats commit another first-round pick to a wide receiver? Should they?
The simplest answer is yes — if one sits atop their board when the 23rd pick rolls around.
Naturally, there are complications. Start with the drop-off from Alabama's Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb — this year's top three wideouts — to the next tier of receivers. All of them are projected to be gone by pick No. 20. And what if a team calls the Patriots offering an irresistible package of picks for them to trade back?
Because the next six to eight wideouts are clustered together in the late first- to second-round range, there's an argument to be made the Pats should trade out anyway. They can replace the second-rounder lost in the Sanu trade and fill another need or simply wait with fingers crossed that a top-10 receiver lasts until their next selection in the third round. Either way, wide receiver must be addressed in the draft — and the sooner the better, considering the bevy of talent available.
If the Patriots find their answer in Round 1, here are their likeliest targets.
LSU's Justin Jefferson
No college pass catcher was more productive last season than Jefferson, a clever route runner who wrecked defenses from inside out as LSU's star slot receiver. He excelled versus zone coverage, exploiting soft spots and finishing catches regularly in traffic. Jefferson's ball skills are outstanding, and he's versatile enough, with 4.4 speed, to threaten defenses deep.
Though despite his 40 time, Jefferson is not regarded as a special athlete and concerns linger about his ability to separate in tight quarters. He faced minimal press coverage at LSU, and the Patriots lack players who can escape bump-and-run man coverage. It's the primary reason their last first-round wideout struggled so much.
Baylor's Denzel Mims
Looking for an athlete? Look no further than Mims.
Another stat sheet stuffer in college, Mims paired a blazing 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at the combine with a 6.66-second time in the three cone, the quickest recorded this year. The Pats put a premium on three-cone times, so Mims instantly enters the conversation as a first-round possibility. His production at Baylor, where he posted two 1,000-yard seasons, cements his status as a high-ceiling prospect.
However, Mims is raw, and his route tree in college was limited. The middle of his routes were much sharper than their beginnings and ends. His hands are inconsistent. Drafting Mims means betting on your coaching staff to mold his rare athletic talents into a top-end receiver.
If the bet pays off, Pro Bowl rewards will await his next team.
Arizona State's Brandon Aiyuk
Like Harry, a former college teammate, Aiyuk can be devastating after the catch. Unlike Harry, Aiyuk is explosive in all aspects of his game.
The former junior college transfer averaged 18.3 yards per catch at Arizona State, where he torched opposing defenses primarily on screens. Aiyuk transitions in and out of breaks without losing speed and accelerates like few prospects in this draft. His physical tools and instincts should allow him to play inside and out in the NFL.
Aiyuk's drop rate of 8.2% wasn't great last season. Neither is his downfield strength or contested-catch ability. His route tree must continue to grow and be refined. But boy, is Aiyuk dynamic.
Clemson's Tee Higgins
On the surface, Higgins' game may overlap too much with Harry's, in that they're both taller targets with jump-ball abilities.
However, two things separate the pair: Higgins can defeat press at a high level, and his game may already be more complete. At Clemson, Higgins also displayed an absurd catch radius and developed into a touchdown machine, while playing every game the past two seasons.
Questions arise when examining his ability to separate at the top of routes, his long speed and strength. Other wideouts are projected to offer a higher ceiling. Higgins might make an impact on Day 1, but how will he look in Years 4 and 5?
Colorado's Laviska Shenault Jr.
Powerful, explosive and sure-handed. If the ball reaches Shenault, good luck.
A ball of muscle who's never seen man coverage that scared him, Shenault carried tacklers on most touches while breaking records at Colorado. The Buffaloes used him at several positions to maximize his instincts and run-after-the-catch ability. As a receiver, he rarely dropped passes and flashed signs of developing route-running.
Injuries are a major issue. Shenault has gone under the knife each of the past two off-seasons and missed significant time as a result. His long speed is also less than ideal, having clocked a 4.58 at the combine.
TCU's Jalen Reagor
Shifty and fast, Reagor could compete for playing time at receiver and returner immediately in the NFL. He's among the most elusive prospects in the draft and a tenacious competitor. While his production dipped last season at TCU due to a poor quarterback play, Reagor remained diligent and led the Horned Frogs in receiving.
Having let eight passes slip in 2019, his drops must be addressed and route running should be sharpened to reach his full potential.