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After losing out on Emmanuel Sanders, is drafting a receiver an even greater priority for Patriots?

04.14.13 at 11:35 pm ET
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The Patriots’ pursuit of restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders came to an end Sunday when the Steelers matched New England’€™s offer, allowing Pittsburgh to retain the receiver and forcing the Patriots to look elsewhere when it comes to building depth at the position.

One thing that New England’€™s courtship of Sanders tells us is that the Patriots believe they still are lacking when it comes to outside wide receiver help. And if they can’€™t find that upgrade via free agency, the inability to land Sanders means there’€™s a greater need to find a receiver in next month’€™s draft.

However, there’€™s a lot of baggage when you start to discuss the Patriots and the history of drafting receivers. Since Bill Belichick arrived prior to the start of the 2000 season, New England has never taken a receiver in the first round. And since the 2003 draft, the only homegrown receiver drafted by the Patriots who has at least 40 catches in the NFL is former college quarterback Julian Edelman.

That being said, there are some intriguing possibilities for the Patriots if they want to pursue a receiver (or two) this year. In fact, there are several prospects who are regarded as physical playmakers who, as collegians, have shown an ability line up on the outside and beat defensive backs who might try to beat them up. In short, guys who meet the definition presented to me by one NFL scout this offseason: ‘€œThe Patriots do have fast wide receivers, but they’€™re small, and require Tom Brady to be more accurate on his deeper throws. And because of their size, they aren’€™t consistent vertical threats. What they need is a wide receiver who is a vertical threat but is also big enough to be physical in press coverage.’€

To that end, here are four possibilities in this month’€™s draft and where they might be available:

Chris Harper: At 6-foot-1 and 229 pounds, the Kansas State product has the size and physical game to outmuscle defensive backs. A former high school quarterback who was recruited to Oregon as a signal-caller, he soon transferred to play closer to home, moved to receiver and never looked back. Starting at receiver full-time for the first time as a junior, he led run-heavy K-State in receiving with 40 receptions for 547 yards, and this past season he had 58 catches for 857 yards and three touchdowns. He’s not a first-round talent, but he could be available sometime in the third round or later.

Aaron Dobson: At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, the Marshall product has the big body and requisite speed needed to fill the spot. As a senior, Dobson was named to the All-Conference USA second team — in 10 games, Dobson caught 57 passes for 679 yards and 3 touchdowns. Dobson was slotted as the 59th overall pick to New England in the latest mock draft from ESPN analyst Todd McShay, and it’€™s worth pointing out that the Patriots have done pretty well with Marshall receivers in the past (Randy Moss, Troy Brown). He’s not a first-rounder, but he’s someone who could be available in the second or third round.

Keenan Allen: We’ve written about Allen as a possible Patriot on a few occasions, and the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder out of Cal certainly appears to be the sort of player who could step in and make a difference in the New England passing game. The wide receiver has been linked to the Patriots by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, who said Allen compares favorably to Anquan Boldin in that he’€™s not necessarily a overly speedy player but has the physical ball skills and toughness that would make him attractive to a team like the Patriots. We’€™ve written about New England’€™s need for a Boldin type a few times — while a traditional deep threat is something the Patriots have lacked since Moss was traded in 2010, the need for a bigger, go-up-and-get-it type of pass-catcher who can beat individual coverage is something the passing game is lacking. Allen could be that guy at the end of the first round or early in the second, if New England decides to trade out of No. 29.

Justin Hunter: The Tennessee product is another big, strong receiver who has good vertical speed. In three years for Tennessee (as a teammate of Corradelle Patterson), the 6-foot-4, 196-pounder had 106 receptions for 1,812 yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 17.1 yards per catch. He does have some positional versatility in that he spent time in the slot and outside, but he likely projects as an outside guy in the NFL. For what it’€™s worth, earlier this month in one of his latest mock drafts, ESPN’€™s Mel Kiper had the Patriots taking Hunter late in the first round.

Read More: Aaron Dobson, Chris Harper, Emmanuel Sanders, Justin Hunter
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