As the Patriots progress through Phase 3 of their offseason program, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s new-look roster. Next up: wide receivers.
In the New England Patriots’ flurry of free agent activity, they spent big on wide receiver Nelson Agholor (two years, $22 million) and a bit more modestly on Kendrick Bourne (three years, $15 million). The Patriots also selected UCF wide receiver Tre Nixon in the seventh round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Agholor, Bourne and Nixon join N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Devin Smith, Kristian Wilkerson and Isaiah Zuber on New England’s wide receiver depth chart. The Patriots lost multiple receivers this offseason when Julian Edelman retired, Damiere Byrd signed with the Chicago Bears, Donte Moncrief left in free agency to the Houston Texans and Marqise Lee, a 2020 opt out, was released.
Agholor, who caught 48 passes for 896 yards with eight touchdowns with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020, is expected to be New England’s top receiver, though he’ll be competing for targets with tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, both of whom also were high-priced free-agent signings.
Bourne is coming off a career year when he caught 49 passes for 667 yards with two touchdowns with the San Francisco 49ers. Nixon comes with upside as a former four-star recruit who saw his draft stock plummet after dislocating his collarbone during the 2020 college season.
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Can Nelson Agholor live up to his contract?
It felt like the Patriots paid Agholor big money for only one good season. He was a major disappointment in 2019 when he caught 39 passes for 363 yards with three touchdowns in a contract year while making $9.387 million under his fifth-year rookie contract option.
He signed a one-year deal worth just $1 million with the Raiders in 2020 then cashed in with the Patriots after a good season as a dangerous deep threat. The risk here is, what if he reverts back to his 2019 form? On a per-year basis, Agholor is the 22nd-highest paid wide receiver in the NFL. He signed for more money than wide receivers like Will Fuller and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Agholor has a cap hit of just $6.94 million in 2020, but that increases to $15 million in 2021. If the Patriots wanted to get out of the deal after one year, it would free up $5 million in cap space while costing them $10 million in dead cap.
Signing Agholor to a two-year deal worth $22 million was one of the more commonly panned moves in this year’s NFL free agency cycle. He and the Patriots can still prove folks wrong with two solid seasons of production.
2. How much more can Jakobi Meyers improve?
Meyers barely played over the first five weeks of the 2020 season, logging just one 7-yard catch on 22 snaps, but wound up leading the Patriots in receiving with 59 grabs for 729 yards. If you extrapolate Meyers’ numbers from the final 11 games of the 2020 season over a full slate, he’d have 84 catches for 1,050 yards. That’s seriously impressive for a second-year pro who was drawing attention from teams’ best defensive backs.
He’ll now compete for snaps with Agholor, Bourne and, further down the line, players like Harry, Olszewski and Nixon. Meyers should enter the 2021 season as the Patriots’ No. 2 receiver behind Agholor. And it’s not really out of the realm of possibility that Meyers could lead New England in receiving again, right?
As we mentioned above, Agholor was coming off a 363-yard season in 2019 before exploding in 2020. Bourne was never more than a No. 3 receiver with the 49ers. Henry and Smith will be battling for targets. Meyers has a ton of potential with the versatility to play outside or in the slot. He’s being slightly overlooked after the Patriots’ offseason additions and probably shouldn’t be.
3. Will any other receivers be added to the group?
The biggest name available is Atlanta Falcons wideout Julio Jones via trade, but players like Golden Tate and Larry Fitzgerald also are still floating out there as free agents. The Patriots could use more competition below Agholor, Meyers and Bourne on their depth chart. A player like Harry, for example, probably shouldn’t be guaranteed a roster spot. And at this point, as the receiver position currently is constructed, he essentially is.
Jones would transform this positional group from one of the NFL’s worst to among the league’s best. If he only costs around a second-round pick, the Patriots should jump at the chance to acquire him.
Tate and Fitzgerald would be interesting additions, but neither player would be guaranteed to start.
MOST TO PROVE
Harry. The 2019 first-round pick has just 45 catches for 414 yards with four touchdowns in 14 career games. He averaged just 15 yards per game as a rookie in 2019 and only improved slightly to 22.1 yards per game in 2020.
He began last season as one of the Patriots’ top two wide receivers but lost that spot to Meyers and couldn’t pass Byrd on the depth chart.
Harry should be fighting for a spot on the Patriots’ roster this summer. He’s also fighting for his NFL future if he can’t keep his job in New England.
SLEEPER TO WATCH
Wilkerson. The 2020 undrafted free agent impressed during training camp with the Tennessee Titans as a rookie but didn’t catch on their 53-man roster. He spent the entire 2020 season in the Patriots’ organization and now has a shot to compete for a roster spot during training camp and the preseason.
Wilkerson is an impressive athlete at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds with 4.4 speed. He ran a 6.68-second 3-cone drill, 4.09-second short shuttle, 39.5-inch vertical leap and 10-feet, 8-inch broad jump during his pro day last spring.