In 2002, the Patriots selected receiver Deion Branch in the second round. The Louisville product became Tom Brady’s go-to pass-catcher and earned a Super Bowl MVP trophy after New England beat Philadelphia in February 2005.
Many fans forget that Branch had company in the draft that year: seventh-rounder David Givens out of Notre Dame. During his rookie season, Givens had nine receptions for 92 yards and one touchdown. Over the next three years, he totaled 157 grabs for over 2,226 yards and 11 TDs. Givens caught a touchdown pass in all six games of New England’s 2003-2004 playoff run and remains the all-time team leader for playoff TD receptions with seven.
In 2009, the Patriots selected Julian Edelman in the seventh round. In 2012, also in the seventh, they took Northwestern receiver Jeremy Ebert. As New England continues to revamp their wide receiver corps, they should consider taking on another late-round, developmental pick.
Drew Terrell of Stanford, DeVonte Christopher of Utah, Jason Thompson of New Haven and Marlon Brown of Georgia all find themselves closer to the bottom of draft boards than the top for various reasons. Yet each has something to contribute, and all are hoping for the opportunity to demonstrate it.
At 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Terrell could walk across campus without attracting attention. Sometimes this seemed to happen on the field as well. Despite having his best season as a senior and leading all Stanford wide receivers in catches, he came in third after tight end Zach Ertz (a first-round prospect) and running back Stepfan Taylor (rated a mid-round pick).
For his part, Terrell had no complaints, especially when his ultimate season output (33 receptions, 463 yards, 14.0 yard per catch) dwarfed that of his junior year (eight catches).
“I knew going into my senior year, my role in the offense would greatly increase,” Terrell said. “I knew that it was pretty much my time. My first three years, I was waiting for my time. My senior year, it came around, the opportunity presented itself, and I fully embraced it … That was the main thing, for me to be patient and wait my turn. I always knew that when I got the opportunity, given plays, that I would make plays.”
Because of the structure of Stanford’s offense, however, Terrell never set his expectations too high. “I thought my role would be as a leader of the wide receiver group, a guy who could be a game-changer catching the football as well as returning punts. I knew that this offense at Stanford was more catered to the running game and distributing the ball to our tight ends. That’s how it’s been since I’ve been here, so I knew that going in, but I just wanted to make the most of the opportunities that I’ve been given.”
Terrell primed himself for success by taking on a specific niche on the team, both as a go-to guy for a first down and as a punt returner.
“I knew that I could move the chains on third down and create separation. I knew that going in. I kind of anticipated that we would run the football a lot like we always do and throw the ball to our tight ends. I think I had an idea of my role and I just tried to embrace it.”
Devonte Christopher had certain expectations when he agreed to go to Utah. A 5-7 record his senior year wasn’t one of them. Neither was ending up as a wide receiver.
Christopher played quarterback at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas. His prolific senior season included three games with six passing touchdowns each. He said that he was a quarterback all his life, with the exception of part of his junior year in high school when the team needed him at receiver.
In fact, Christopher chose Utah because, “They were offering me the opportunity to come in and play quarterback. You know, I had offers from other schools – Big 12, schools in the Pac-10 at the time – but they were mostly athlete scholarship offers, like, ‘We’ll find you a spot when you get here, maybe receiver, or maybe you could be quarterback.’ At the time, I didn’t really like the way that sounded. I was really set on playing quarterback. At Utah, that was the situation at the time, so that’s why I went there.”
At first, all went according to plan, as Christopher practiced as a scout quarterback during his redshirt season. During his second year with the Utes, however, he was asked to move to receiver to address a team need. Though he said it worked out for the best, the move took some adjustment in terms of practice and career expectations.
“Mentally, it was easy to make the transition coming from quarterback … Going to receiver was definitely less stressful mentally. Physically, it was definitely more demanding, though. You go from having on a black jersey, not getting touched, to getting hit. And you’re definitely running more at receiver than at quarterback. So it was a little change, but nothing too major. Personally, it was tough for me because I told them the only reason I came to Utah was to play quarterback. At first I was kind of resistant to the change and I didn’t really agree with it, but after a while, it was what it was. I just wanted to get on the field, and that was probably the fastest way.”
The next year, as a sophomore, Christopher led the team in receptions. He duplicated that stat his junior year. Ask him about what happened as a senior, and Christopher sounds as if he’s about to deliver a eulogy.
“We had great expectations. Not just personally, but as a team. We had a lot of seniors, a lot of guys who came up in the system, and last year was supposed to be a pretty good year for us. It definitely didn’t turn out that way. We struggled mightily last year – I think it was the worst offense in the whole conference. There wasn’t production to go around. My numbers stink. I don’t really have too many words to say. I’m really not trying to make excuses, but, I mean, that’s just how our season went. It didn’t turn out well for me on a personal level or on a team level.”
When pressed for details, Christopher said that the team had to scramble after losing their quarterback early in the season. “We shuffled around a little bit, ended up changing our whole offense mid-year, ended up changing quarterbacks again a few games later. Basically a bunch of little stuff combined. It wasn’t the type of season that we really wanted, but it is what it is now.”
Jason Thompson earned the moniker of playmaker in 2012. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound receiver averaged 20 yards per reception (44 for 881) and had 16 touchdowns. If you didn’t hear his name this season, Thompson understands. He said that was an aspect of playing for Division II New Haven, as he explained while discussing his preparation for his pro day March 27.
“Well, I’m lifting like everybody else, I’m preparing for the drills. I feel like, if my number is called, I’m trying to be ready. Because I know, being a small school guy, I’ve got to prepare. I’ve got to be that much better than the next person. I’m just trying to make sure I can do the things that people ask me to do.”
Thompson finds himself in the category of a high achiever in a lower-division school. While he said he was recruited by SMU and Bethune-Cookman (located in his home state of Florida), Thompson and a high school friend came North to follow a coach. “(New Haven Head Coach) Peter Rossomando coached a couple of my high school coaches,” he said. “They went to New Haven to coach with him, and they recruited me and my best friend (quarterback Ronnie Nelson). They offered both of us, so we just figured we’d go together, so we just came up here together.”
The four-year high school basketball player was a football neophyte with only one year of varsity experience. Thompson credits Rossomando for his development and for the success of New Haven, which has won the Northeast-10 Conference Championship three years in a row. For his team’s accomplishments, Rossomando was named the Divison II Coach of the Year.
“You know, he rebuilt our program in such a short amount of time. Over four years, we were consistent – I think we were like (35-9) or something, that’s not bad – and just to win the conference three years in a row … Honestly, I think he’s a great coach, and I think he deserves (Coach of the Year) because he works hard and he puts a lot of time and effort into everything. To bring the group of guys together like he did, and for us to accomplish the things we did, I think it’s great.”
While a high school football player at Harding Academy in Tennessee, Marlon Brown did some wonderful things on the field. A prime example was in the state championship, where Brown had 335 yards receiving and four touchdowns.
Ask Brown about that contest, though, and one fact sticks out. “Yeah, I remember that game, but I also remember that we lost that game by two points,” he said.
Brown had his choice of schools, including LSU, Florida and Alabama in the SEC. The 6-4, 215-pounder settled on Georgia and got to play as a true freshman. “I think I fit in well,” he said. “It’s a post-up offense: they use big receivers a lot.”
Heading into his senior year, Brown and his teammates figured they would vie for the national championship. Brown had few personal expectations beyond helping the team by doing what they asked of him.
They asked him to catch the ball. By November, Brown was tied for the team lead in receptions with Tavarres King with 27. As he said, “Everything was going as expected.”
Then, what every athlete fears: a knee injury against Ole Miss that knocked Brown out for the rest of the season. “To be honest, I thought I just sprained my knee a little bit,” he said, “because I was laying on the ground, and then they asked me if I could get up and walk, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can walk. I think I can.’ And I got up and I started walking off the field. And then I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll be alright, I’ve just got to walk it off.’ And then they told me I tore my ACL. I mean, it was just heartbreaking. It was just the last thing on my mind.”
Brown had left the game during the third quarter to get an MRI. His promising senior year had ended before its time, forcing him to reevaluate his career. “Really, after I got hurt – I got hurt and they told me I was out for the rest of the season – after the game that night, I just, you know, I just called my grandmother and had a long talk with her. Basically, I was like, things happen for a reason. I’m not going to sit here and sob over the injury like it’s the end of the world. So, work hard and bounce back.”
What They Bring
Stanford had a lackluster season by their standards; however, Terrell did some positive things that NFL coaches should notice. Besides providing a consistent third-down threat, Terrell continued his role as a dynamic punt returner, averaging over 12 yards per runback.
While the prospect of returning a punt against 11 men might seem daunting to some, Terrell has lifelong experience that gives him perspective. “For me, it’s something that I’ve always done, since I started playing football. I was a baseball player when I was younger, and I think my hand/eye coordination and being able to track the ball and catch it in baseball really helped me out with returning punts. It’s something that’s come naturally to me. I mean, if I had to give advice, I would say stay calm. A lot of people tend to try to over-coach punt returners, and I think it’s something that you have to let come to you. You can’t force anything. You have to stay calm, trust in the athletic abilities you have: you know, the ability to track the ball and catch it. I think vision is something that’s natural but is really critical in being a punt returner – being able to see the field, see lanes, when to hit them, when to cut it back, that type of thing. But I figure it’s just staying calm, being an athlete, and letting the game come to you.”
In terms of finding lanes, Terrell found a big one vs. Duke this season, bringing back a punt for a touchdown. “There’s definitely a point where you can hit, make a cut, and then you’ve got one, maybe two guys to beat, and you know at that point that you can go to the house. In the Duke game when I got my return, I broke to the right because there was a defender right in front of me, so I cut off him. Then I saw that it was just me and the punter, and I knew the punter had no chance. I wasn’t going to let him make a play. I think once I cut back on that first guy and I saw the punter, I knew at that point that it was going to be a touchdown and a big play.” (For a highlight of Terrell’s return, go to the 2:20 mark of this video.)
In terms of trying to make it at the next level, Christopher has two career aspects in his favor, one of which was his experience at QB and how it helps him read defenses.
“At receiver, you’re only dissecting the secondary,” Christopher said. “As a quarterback, you’re worried about the rush, you’re worried about the linebackers, about how the DB in coverage is working. You have a lot to worry about even before the snap of the ball … So playing quarterback has made it way easier for me to dissect defenses and coverages.”
The other aspect the 6-1, 192-pound pass-catcher brings? “Just being a physical receiver, you know, competing for that ball. Blocking – I know a lot of receivers might not really take pride in their blocking, but that was something that was stressed at Utah, so now I’m familiar with it. That is definitely a part of my game. So being able to block is definitely something that I pride myself on. I know I could definitely help in the running game.”
Christopher tries to set himself apart even though he knows it’s all been said before. “But that drive to win, I’m sure a lot of athletes, a lot of people, say that they have it, but those crunch times, I have some plays and some film where it’s long (yardage) on fourth and the game on the line, and I came through. It’s actually a blessing to even be put in that situation to even make the play. So there’s some playmaking ability shown on my highlight reel.”
Coming from a smaller school, Thompson’s most useful experiences seem to have come from playing under a great coach in Rossomando. “First of all, he always pushed me,” Thompson said. “He pushed all of us, but he pushed me, and he expected a lot from me. Every time I did something, he expected more. I’m pretty sure he’d seen great things in me, and that motivated me. Our program, we were just all very close, a tight-knit group, so we all played for each other, and that kind of helped. I mean, you weren’t out there trying to be selfish and wanting the ball all the time. Like, I never had the greedy feeling of wanting the ball all the time, I just wanted everybody to do well and win as a team. I think we were able to accomplish that.”
Thompson plans to use his small-school status as a motivator. “I’m a grounded guy. I’m a hard worker. I want to win. I have a drive; I have a motor, and I’m just all in right now, so I’m just going to give all I have. I don’t think there are any skills (I’m lacking). You’d get a hard-working guy. I got a chip on my shoulder and I want to prove myself.” (You can see Thompson’s highlight reel here.)
While Brown couldn’t finish up his senior year the way he wanted to, he felt Georgia’s offense helped him demonstrate what he could bring. “Usually, you think of a slot guy as small and fast and quick, but here at Georgia we have slot guys who are big, who are physical, and can have some nice little passes across the middle of the field,” Brown said. He added that he liked playing inside receiver more because, “I just like going across the middle.” (You can see Brown’s 2012 highlight reel here.)
In spite of various fates that have led each player to this point, all of them aspire to reach the next level. Still, despite each one’s situation – or perhaps because of it – no one seems to believe he is owed anything.
Brown, the only athlete in this piece with a combine invitation, made use of his time with NFL coaches despite being unable to go through drills. “I talked to teams at the combine when I was there. I talked to them after the combine as well. I think teams are interested in me for sure, but my injury has set me back a little bit. But not so far back where I can’t come back or where teams don’t want me. But I have no expectations, really. I’m just going to go and see what happens.”
Terrell shared that wait-and-see attitude. “If I’m drafted, that’s great; if I’m not, that’s great, too. It’s just – anytime I can get an opportunity to come to camp and show what I can do, I think I’m going to be happy for that, regardless. So come draft day, I don’t have any expectations. I won’t be, you know, let down at all if I’m not drafted. Just kind of let the chips fall where they may and once I get to camp, or a mini-camp, or whatever, I intend to show that I’m good enough to play in this league and to stick. I don’t really have any expectations for draft day.”
Thompson – who, like Terrell and Brown, is still on campus finishing up classes – had a similar outlook. “Being from a small school, I just feel like, right now, being able to be a part of the whole process and everything is just a blessing. Anything that happens as far as being drafted and all that would be a great thing for me. I would be happy with anything. My outlook is, I’m trying to get my degree, and if this works out for me, I’ll be more than happy, because this is a dream for me. It’s definitely something I want to pursue. I’m putting everything into it, but at the same time trying to stay grounded. I’m just hoping, and I’m preparing for it. I mean, I think I can make it happen.”
The NFL draft begins on Thursday, April 25 and wraps up on Saturday, April 27, when, as of this writing, the Patriots have two seventh-round picks.
You can email Chris Warner at [email protected]