Catching Up: Can the Patriots Upgrade at Wide Receiver?
The Philadelphia Eagles ultimately came up short in their 38-35 Super Bowl LVII loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, but getting as far as they did during the 2022 season showed the value in taking any means necessary to acquire quality offensive playmakers to complement a young quarterback.
The New England Patriots should have been taking note. Because the two teams really couldn’t have two receiving corps structured more differently. Jakobi Meyers was the Patriots’ leading receiver with 67 catches for 804 yards with six touchdowns. New England had five offensive playmakers with over 400 receivers yards and eight with more than 200 receiving yards. Meanwhile, the Eagles had two 1,000-yard receivers in A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith, and only four of Philadelphia’s pass-catchers accumulated over 200 receiving yards. Brown, Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert accounted for 77.8% of the Eagles’ receiving yards last season, while Patriots top receivers Meyers, DeVante Parker and tight end Hunter Henry, accounted for just 48.5% of New England’s total receiving yards.
There is certainly some value in having a balanced receiving corps. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady spread the ball around with the best of them for much of his 20-year career with the Patriots. But the 2022 Patriots proved that having five starting-caliber wide receivers might mean you have one or two starting wide receivers.
Six wide receivers started games for the Patriots last season: Meyers (14), Parker (11), rookie Tyquan Thornton (nine), Nelson Agholor (seven), Kendrick Bourne (two) and Lil’Jordan Humphrey (two). Plus, tight ends Hunter Henry (14) and Jonnu Smith (eight) also started a solid chunk of New England’s games. There were many issues in New England’s offense last season, which is why they hired offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to fix things, but in an effort to simplify the offense under head coach Bill Belichick and top assistants Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, certain things, like wide receiver roles, seemingly became too complex. And it certainly didn’t help that a player like Bourne, who was New England’s second-leading receiver in 2021, fell out of favor as he played just 44% of offensive snaps and started two games yet still finished fourth among Patriots pass-catchers in receptions and receiving yards.
In all, the Patriots pass-catchers finished just 22nd in burn percentage (rate at which a targeted receiver achieves a successful play, regardless of the quality of pass), though they were open on 81.6% of targets, which ranked second in the NFL.
Heading into 2023, Meyers is not only a free agent but the best available veteran wide receiver on the market. PFF salary cap analyst Brad Spielberger projected Meyers will sign a four-year, $64 million contract with $40 million total guaranteed this offseason. That is the going rate for quality veteran wide receivers, though it would still be a tough pill to swallow for a slot receiver who has never totaled more than 866 yards or six touchdowns in a season. The Patriots have the sixth-most cap space entering the offseason at just under $34 million, and they have worked well with the receiver’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, in the past. So, a deal is certainly not out of the realm of possibility, and the Patriots definitely need Meyers back in 2023. But he’ll have plenty of competition for his services since JuJu Smith-Schuster, Odell Beckham Jr., D.J. Chark, Allen Lazard, Marvin Jones and Parris Campbell are the other top wide receivers available, though Michael Thomas, Corey Davis, Keenan Allen, Robert Woods, Kenny Golladay, Adam Thielen and Robbie Anderson also could become available in trades or cuts.
The Patriots currently have Bourne, Parker, Thornton and special-teamer Raleigh Webb signed for 2023, Lynn Bowden and Tre Nixon on future deals and Kristian Wilkerson as an exclusive-rights free agent. Meyers and Agholor are free agents, and Agholor seems unlikely to return unless it’s on a significantly reduced contract.
It would be slightly counterintuitive, but the Patriots also could save cap space by trading or cutting Parker ($6.2 million) or Bourne ($5.5 million). If Bourne is going to continue to fester on the bench, then perhaps New England would be better off acquiring a draft pick and freeing up that cap space to use elsewhere. New England would take on at least $12.7 million in dead cap by releasing Smith. Henry has been the more useful receiver, but they could save $10.5 million by trading or cutting him.
The Patriots need to have a concise plan in place before the new league year starts next month. Are they going to completely overhaul the group yet again and cut their losses, try to bring back as many pieces as possible from last year or borrow from both and add pass-catchers to supplement last year’s group?
Ultimately, only re-signing Meyers won’t do a lot to help quarterback Mac Jones beyond clearing up receiving roles by eliminating Agholor from the group. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a way to clearly upgrade the position.
The Patriots have other needs in the draft and just spent a second-round pick last year on Thornton. That shouldn’t preclude them from drafting another wide receiver this year, but Belichick has only spent one first-round pick on a wide receiver during his tenure in New England, and it didn’t go well when they took N’Keal Harry in 2019. Young wide receivers historically don’t fare well in the Patriots’ offense, but most of that time was spent with Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator. Things could potentially be different with O’Brien at the helm since he was just coaching at the college level at Alabama.
Free agency is bleak at the position even if some of those other pass-catchers shake free. And there aren’t obvious young trade candidates like there were in 2022.
DeAndre Hopkins is one option, but things didn’t end particularly well between him and O’Brien with the Houston Texans. Brandin Cooks could potentially have a second stint in New England, and perhaps the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be willing to part with Mike Evans since Tom Brady’s retirement will likely spark a rebuild down south. Evans is entering the final year of his contract with Tampa. Allen will be 31 years old this season, and he’s still a quality receiver, but he also played just 10 games this season as he dealt with hamstring injuries. It’s tough to bet on him staying healthier one year older. To maximize the receiving group, New England would almost have to re-sign Meyers and bring one of those options aboard.
They will need another starting tackle assuming they don’t re-sign Isaiah Wynn, and there’s no guarantee that Jones is the answer, though that will be much more clear after a year spent with O’Brien.
Jones’ receiving corps wasn’t quite as bad as the groups Brady and Cam Newton played with in New England in 2019 and 2020, but it was still tough to get a full picture of the second-year pro in 2022 given everything that was going on around him. The Patriots’ pass-catching group shouldn’t have been awful, on paper, but it lacked upside without one clear top playmaker. And that’s what Jones needs. But it’s currently looking impossible to find unless the Patriots draft a wide receiver like Jordan Addison or Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the first round, and they wind up playing even better than expected.
Jones finished this season 23rd out of 33 qualified quarterbacks in passing EVE, 16th in well-thrown percentage and sixth in catchable pass rate. He had the 10th-highest pickable pass rate with a mark of 4.51%, which was up from 4.09% in 2021.
Jones’ 2022 season definitely did not go as planned, but he was still middle of the road in key advanced metrics, and he should have more help next season. But New England might need to get creative to get their QB significantly better talent in playmaking positions. They’re set with Rhamondre Stevenson at running back, but he’s really the only clear answer the Patriots have as far as pass-catches go on offense.
The Eagles found Goedert in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, selected Smith in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft and then traded first- and third-round picks for Brown. It’s time for the Patriots to also invest significantly in a wide receiver. If only it were that easy this offseason.