INDIANAPOLIS – As has been the case for the better part of a year the Patriots wide receiver position has remained a topic of great interest recently. According to published reports 2006 second-round pick Chad Jackson suffered a torn ACL in New England's season-ending AFC Championship game loss to the Colts.
Jackson's now uncertain future based on his health combined with his extremely disappointing rookie season and the Patriots continuing lack of top-end talent and overall depth at receiver may have pushed the position to a greater level of need on draft weekend 2007.
Somewhat fortunately for the Patriots, receiver is possibly the deepest and most talented position group of all the various prospects converging on the Indianapolis Combine this week. So whether the team chooses to target one of the half dozen pass catchers that could go in the first round or take advantage of the depth at the position to snag a potential immediate contributor later in the draft, plenty of options are available for any team looking to add talent at receiver.
Much of the top-end talent available come April 28 comes via early entry juniors, including a potential top pick in Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson (6-4, 228). Johnson is a big, strong, fast, playmaking receiver who many believe will be an even better pro than he was in his three seasons at Georgia Tech.
Other junior entries at the top of the draft class included Ohio State speed burner Ted Ginn Jr. (6-0, 180), USC's Dwayne Jarrett (6-5, 210), South Carolina's Sidney Rice (6-4, 205) and Tennessee's Robert Meachem (6-3, 210). The group has plenty of size and athletic ability, making for solid competition between the prospects as the drive toward the draft continues.
"We're all tall, big and physical and we each do our own thing," Meachem said. "Mine is yards after the catch, I would say. There's great competition. It's an honor to be here and to be on the same playing field with each other and not as rivals right now. We're all trying to do the same thing."
With that in mind, Rice says it will be a fight to the draft day finish.
"I think we do have a really good receiving class," Rice said. "These are the best receivers in the nation here, guys like Dwayne Jarrett, Calvin Johnson, myself, Ted Ginn. It's a lot of good receivers, and it's going to be a battle."
A number of top college football schools including Tennessee, USC, Ohio State, South Carolina, Florida, Florida State and others even have multiple receivers representing their teams at the Combine. For example beyond Ginn Jr., Ohio State's Anthony Gonzalez (6-0, 195) is an intriguing prospect hoping to work his way into the end of the first round on draft Saturday. Playing second fiddle to Ginn at times, Gonzalez caught 51 passes for 734 yards and eight touchdowns over his final junior season. In the competitive group of receivers, the cerebral Gonzalez banks on stability to separate him from the rest.
"What I hope to bring is consistency and reliability and accountability," Gonzalez said. "That's on the field, off the field, wherever. I want to be the type of person that coaches and fans and the media know when he comes to a situation, he's going to bring ... this is what we expect out of him, and he's a consistent person so we believe that that's what he'll do. That's how I've always tried to approach everything in life, really. I want to be as consistently good as possible.
"My goal from a draft standpoint is to be picked by the team that's best for me. That encompasses a lot. That's just not financially. I just hope that at the end of the day I'm pleased with the situation I'm in, and I feel I will be."
And he admits that playing with a quarterback like Tom Brady might qualify as a good fit for any receiver.
"The Patriots certainly win a lot and I'm a winning person," said Gonzalez, who had yet to meet with New England. "I love the idea of competing for victories every time I step on the field. Certainly, I would be open to that and I would love the opportunity."
LSU's Dwayne Bowe (6-2, 222) is another big-bodied potential first-round pick. Bowe caught 65 passes for 990 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall after having Lasik corrective eye surgery in July. Despite having the tempting build of a big target and the big numbers, Bowe's blocking ability, described by some as "nasty," may help separate him in the logjam of big receivers.
"I'm bigger. I may not be the fastest, but I play like I'm pretty fast," Bowe said. "I guess my blocking ability and shedding tackles and things like that (separate me)."
Prospects likely to go in the middle and later rounds at receiver, a position that according to NFLDraftScout.com could have as many 38 players selected on draft weekend, are many. Washington State's Jason Hill (6-1, 204), Fresno State's Paul Williams (6-1, 200), Notre Dame's Rhema McKnight (6-1, 207) and New Hampshire's David Ball (6-1, 198) are all projected to go somewhere around the fourth round but could have the talent to contribute at an early point in their pro careers.
Ball is a Vermont native who went to UNH for track, walked on to the football team and eventually broke Jerry Rice's NCAA career touchdown mark with 58 scores over four seasons. But even with all the production, including 93 catches for 1,114 yards with 13 touchdowns as a senior, Ball knows his I-AA status means he still has plenty to prove with the "big boys" at the Combine.
"It's going to be huge for us small school guys. Now we are on a big stage," Ball said. "I did well at the East West game and now I'm going to have some more eyes on me now that I did that to kind of lock that up and assure them that I can be a consistent player against top competion. I just want to be picked and placed with a team that is the right fit. I think that is more important than where I get picked, as long as the team is a good fit for me."
And as a Patriots fan growing up in New England, Ball wouldn't be opposed to staying close to home but he is also keeping all his options open.
"I love the franchise," Ball said. "They run a great franchise there and it's something that I would proud to be a part of. But that goes for every other team in the league."
McKnight, like all the Notre Dame prospects over the last two years that come from Charlie Weis' pro style offense, hopes that can be the edge that propels him to a better draft positioning. While he's struggled with drops at times in his Irish career, McKnight maintains plenty of confidence.
"I'm a playmaker," said McKnight who has already had a sit-down with the Patriots. "That's why I've been chosen to play receiver. I love playing. I went to Notre Dame to make plays. I'm very comfortable and confident that I can do that."
Williams is an interesting prospect on many levels. Not only is he another of the prospects from a potential Patriots pipeline school at Fresno State, but he's trying to prove himself after an injury-plagued final season with the Bulldogs. Off the field Williams is the youngest of eight children, including an older brother (J.D.) who played in the NFL and is now a defensive backs coach for the University of Washington and another older brother (Curtis) who became paralyzed on the football field and later died from complications after a hit while playing for Washington against Stanford. Filling out Williams' tumultuous tale is the fact that he lost his father (Donnie) to a heart attack and his mother (Viola) to Alzheimer's disease just months after Curtis' death.
Williams uses his past as motivation and to help keep everything that goes on in his life in complete perspective.
"I learned to take everything in stride," Williams said of his difficult experiences. "You can't control everything that happens. You just deal with everything as you can."
A unique prospect as a versatile athlete somewhere in the middle to later rounds of the draft is South Carolina's Syvelle Newton (6-2, 198). The confident utility man played quarterback, running back, receiver and safety in his time with the Gamecocks becoming just the fourth player in NCAA history to produce more than 600 yards receiving (666), rushing (786) and passing (2,474). The most notable name on that short list is current Steelers star Hines Ward, a guy who Newton is being compared to.
"Just being part of that list, that's pretty nice," Newton said. "To get compared to a Hines Ward, if I can bring the same attitude to the team, I should be in pretty good shape."
Newton, whose brother Cam plays defensive back for the Panthers, heads into the NFL with an open mind in terms of being used in a variety of ways by whatever team might seek his services on draft weekend. But whether he's running, catching or passing at the next level, Newton will do it all with a high level of confidence.
"Any team that wants an athlete," said Newton who returned from an Achilles injury to finish out his career at South Carolina, "they are looking at me."
It might not be Newton specifically, but it would seem the Patriots will indeed be looking at many of the receivers getting poked, prodded and tested this week in Indy. Whether it's the oversized top-end talent from some of college football's biggest schools or small-school record breakers the 2007 draft class has plenty to offer at receiver. The Patriots have drafted at least one receiver in four of the last five years, including second-round picks in 2002, 2003 and last spring. With the continued uncertainty of the position on the roster there is a very good chance New England could target the position once again, the only question is whether its for top-of-the-crop playmakers with one of two first-round picks or if it's a search for the ever important value that might be had at the spot later in the draft.
Either way New England's draft options at the position, like any good wide receiver, seem wide open.