Thanks for putting that together. I think it's fair to say they have never invested a lot in WRs, but they were able to carve out effective passing attacks anyway, and that has dried up of late.
I'm not sure I agree with this. After drafting Michel, they used a third the next year on Harris, then a fourth two years later on Stevenson. The emergence of those two let them get rid of Michel. There has been no similar effort to stock the receiving corps with mid-round picks - you've got Harry, Malcolm Mitchell in 2016, and then you have to go all the way back to 2013 to find a WR taken before the sixth round. That's even as though the passing game has gotten more prevalent league-wide, the free agent WR market has boomed in price, and the core receiving threats have gotten older.
Yeah, I think with wide receivers their strategy has generally been to rely upon Brady's superlative ability as a quarterback to be able to have an elite passing offense without having to invest a lot of cap space and picks into wide receivers. All in all, this strategy disappoints me as a fan because I enjoy watching Brady throw to great receivers, but it worked pretty well until the team hit an ungodly dry spell of almost every move failing and was unable to replace the aging and degrading bargain-bin acquisitions that had previously worked out. They played with fire, won three rings, and then got burnt.
I'm not sure if you disagree with the strategy or what I said, because I don't think you disagree with what you quoted, which is just that Michel is the sole aberration in what has otherwise been a consistent strategy at the RB position; WRs have nothing to do with it. Absolutely, what they've done with great success over the last decade is stack the running back room with mid-round picks and cheap FA signings. Stevenson in the 4th, Harris in the 3rd, White in the 4th, Vereen in the 2nd and Ridley in the 3rd, and then the cheap acquisitions of players like Lewis, Burkhead, Woodhead, and Blount. Bolden as a UDFA. The only 'high' pick here is Vereen, and that's if you consider the 56th pick to be a high one. So, the running back strategy--stock up with great depth at the RB position with midround picks and cheap free agents while never paying any of them a big contract--has been what it has been with the sole exception of Sony Michel. Outside of him, NE's approach to the RB position has been pure "analytics," so to speak.
If Gordon could defeat his demons and Brown wasn't a dumbass, those guys wouldn't have been available. We were buying low because of the risk.
Again, absolutely, but that's not the point. The Pats haven't shown a disregard for the position, they have consistently tried to get talent at the position, even elite talent, they've just always had a mind for trying to get it for cheap. They've made moves that had a chance of working out; they just didn't. Hell, Antonio Brown is still going strong down in Tompa Bay.
In 2019, I think it was pretty clear that they realized how badly they'd fucked up at the position. You don't sign AB (especially for as much as they did) or trade a 2nd for Sanu if you aren't desperate. They just failed to fix the issue.
They definitely have done better with RBs than with WRs, but again, I think they're making their own luck to some degree. Harry looks like a bust, but the Michel pick doesn't look great either, and they're still fine at RB because they kept throwing picks at the problem. The draft is a crapshoot, but if you don't play, you can't win.
I would love to have AJ Brown instead of Harry, but the reason there's so much emphasis on that one decision is because it is the only time we dipped a toe in there. Look at the other teams that drafted receivers high in 2019: The Ravens took Marquise Brown (mildly disappointing) a few picks before Harry; they double-dipped with a third later in the draft, used a third last year, and used a first and a fourth this year. After Parris Campbell (looks like a bust) in 2019, the Colts used their first pick on another WR in Michael Pittman last year. The Eagles had a similar bust in JJAW, then took another (seeming) bust last year in Jalen Raegor, and now they used ANOTHER first in DeVonta Smith. OK, that seems like too much and dumb. The 49ers, Seahawks, and Cardinals, all of whom took a second-rounder in the same 2019 draft, have all picked WRs in the first or second round in one of the last two drafts. Only TEN hasn't drafted a WR high since, but they had taken Corey Davis 5th overall two years earlier and they traded for Julio when Davis left. But we took Harry and it's like, OK, that's our guy, no reason to draft any more WRs.
If the question is if the team has been trying to shift over to a really run-heavy approach, I think there's very limited evidence for that. I'd say no. Especially since one of the real albatrosses hasn't been the opportunity cost of all the running backs they've gone for, but all the failed defensive backs they've routinely picked in the second round (Dugger might actually be good, but he still wasn't a good pick; JoeJuan, Dawson, Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards... that's rough). If the question is whether or not the team has spent enough effort and resources towards acquiring wide receivers, the answer is a resounding
"Hell no they haven't!" But that's a different question. And with this year, they didn't spend a high or mid-round pick on a WR, but they did drop a lot of money on free agent receivers and receiving tight ends, so given who they actually picked with those early picks, I'm not going to complain about 2021 specifically.
So, basically I don't disagree with a single word you've said here, except for the bit about the Eagles. The consistent failing to pick a WR in the first round warrants a reevaluation
of your scouting process and the general process through which you decide which WR to pick; it shouldn't make you not pick any more. Those past picks are sunk costs and you still need receivers. Sure, if they'd hit on JJAW and Raegor, then it could be dumb to pick Smith (although, if you had two good wide receivers, but your third guy was trash, it'd still probably be a good idea to spend resources getting a third guy, especially if that third guy is someone like Devonta Smith, i.e. capable of being your best guy and making your 11 personnel sets into something scary.)
They weren't terrified of Woodhead and BJGE, but the run game is still vital to the 2 TE look, because if defenses are going to treat it as a nickel and just put a corner on one of your TEs, you have to make them pay on the ground. Even a really good tight end is not as productive a receiver as a third wideout unless he's getting a mismatch. If you can't run defenses out of nickel, you might as well just play 3 WRs, because your third WR is going to be a better receiving threat than your second tight end. You want to make the defense wrong no matter how they defend it; if they play base, exploit the LB/TE matchups in the passing game; if they play nickel, exploit the CB/TE matchups in the run game.
There's this thing that you and I do where we're never quite talking about exactly the same thing, lol. I don't think I was saying much more than that the 2010-2012 Patriots ran off the pass more than that passed off of the run (which is what you could say the current 49ers do.) I don't think it's necessarily guaranteed that your second TE is necessarily a worse receiving threat than your third WR; I'm seriously not sure who is the best receiving threat out of Henry, Smith, Meyers, and Bourne. Probably Meyers and then one of the tight ends? It's hard to say, and I don't want to discount Bourne. I would say that Hernandez was definitely better than (goddamn) Ochocinco and Tate, and probably better than Branch as well, though.
But your line that "you want to make the defense wrong no matter how they defend it," is a really good way to put it, and might well go to explain Michel's expendability, because he doesn't really contribute to that at all; eight targets last year and I don't remember him ever lining up outside. A really good receiving back like James White (and given that they had him lining up outside the numbers on Sunday, Stevenson potentially as well) means that you can go a step further and start making the defense think that maybe they need to start going out there in dime. Michel... doesn't do that. Harris doesn't either, really.