NFL draft 2021: 10 WR prospects who could help Patriots fill void left by Julian Edelman

In announcing his retirement from the NFL on Monday, Julian Edelman said, "the wheels have finally fallen off." Without an infusion of talent at wide receiver in his stead, the New England Patriots' passing attack risks the same fate.

It could be argued, of course, that the collapse already occurred last year, when New England suffered its first losing season in two decades as the team encountered plenty of turbulence in the quarterback transition from Tom Brady to Cam Newton. But with Newton back again and Bill Belichick seemingly determined to repair last year's problem areas, the outlook at wide receiver looks increasingly unstable as Edelman exits the picture.

In a free agency period rife with established receivers still in their prime, the Patriots eschewed the most expensive options at the position, instead bringing on Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne while spending top dollar on tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. While that could be a signal the team intends to take advantage of a deep draft class, Belichick has seldom invested premium picks there. But given Edelman's retirement and the struggles of N'Keal Harry – whom Belichick in 2019 made his inaugural first-round receiver in New England, taking him ahead of the likes of DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown and Deebo Samuel – another investment seems wise. And while New England could go all-in for a quarterback or look elsewhere with the No. 15 pick, the draft should offer a number of different possibilities in the early-to-middle rounds.

Here are 10 receivers in the 2021 NFL draft who could help the Patriots turn the page: 

Jaylen Waddle, Alabama: A threat to break off big plays as either a deep target or simply with the ball in his hands on a slant or screen, Waddle might be the best-case scenario at receiver should the Patriots remain in their current slot. And though his breakaway speed can change the complexion of New England's offense, he's not a gadget player or a one-note pass catcher. It might seem like a long shot that he would last until the No. 15 pick, but the Patriots might not have a better option if he does.

DeVonta Smith, Alabama: Displaying an innate feel for the position, Smith could be the stabilizing force this group of receivers sorely needs. The Heisman Trophy winner set himself apart from a star-studded crew at Alabama, defying what outsiders might expect from a 6-0, 170-pound target without elite timed speed. Like Waddle, Smith might already have had his name called by the time New England is on the clock, but he'll be difficult to pass up if he hasn't.

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Rashod Bateman, Minnesota: One distinctly missing element of the Patriots' receiving corps last season was a dependable target who could make life easier for Newton on any given play. Bateman, one of the class' craftiest route runners, no doubt would address that deficiency. With experiencing attacking defenses all over the field, he offers a well-rounded skill set as a possible first-round consideration, though perhaps more reasonably in a trade-back scenario.

Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU: While his Tiger teammate Ja'Marr Chase likely will be out of reach barring a drastic move into the top six picks, Marshall could be a possibility should Belichick decide to move back again in the first round. At 6-3 and 205 pounds with 4.38-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Marshall could invigorate the downfield passing attack a year after the Patriots tied for 28th with 38 passing plays of 20-plus yards.

Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida: Good luck to any cornerback tasked with catching him in space. There's a good argument that Toney is the draft's most elusive pass catcher, as he combines rare redirection ability with elite explosiveness to wiggle past defenders that looked to have him boxed in. Still somewhat of a project given his imprecise route running, Toney might not figure into the Patriots' plans unless he slides or New England trades back in Round 1.

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