For years, the New England Patriots’ receiving corps was led by a quarterback-turned-slot receiver whom most teams ignored in the NFL draft.
Now, it’s led by … a quarterback-turned-slot receiver whom most teams ignored in the NFL draft.
The first player, of course, is Julian Edelman, the recently retired franchise cornerstone who will be honored at halftime of Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium.
The second? That’s Jakobi Meyers, who, like Edelman before him, has defied long odds to establish himself as a key figure in the Patriots’ offense.
Through two games this season, Meyers has played all but eight of New England’s offensive snaps (94.0 percent) and has seen 15 targets from rookie quarterback Mac Jones, leading all Patriots skill players in both categories. Despite the offseason additions of veterans Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, Meyers is the Patriots’ No. 1 wideout — a position he locked down with an excellent showing in training camp and the preseason.
“I’m excited for Jakobi,” Edelman said this week. “He’s really grown to heights that I knew he could get to.”
He might never have gotten there without Edelman.
Meyers, who joined the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2019, spent his first two pro seasons closely studying the three-time Super Bowl winner — his routes, his releases, his study habits, his professionalism, his tenacity. When Edelman landed on injured reserve last November, the grizzled veteran would give Meyers constant pointers, helping the latter navigate his suddenly significant role.
“When Jakobi first got (to New England), you saw that he had an ability,” Edelman said. “He had a shiftiness. He was a natural great route-runner, great with the ball in his hands. A lot of what he had to work on was the mental part of the game, the confidence. And to see him right now gaining confidence and becoming the player he is — blocking well, going out there doing the dirty things that you have to do, as guys in that spot have had to do for years in this offense — I’m super proud of him.”
Meyers acknowledged his initial lack of confidence — not in himself, but in his ability to properly operate within the Patriots’ system.
In his first season, his primary focus was on not losing his job, as he knew then-quarterback Tom Brady had little patience for rookie mistakes. He made the Patriots’ roster again in 2020 but entered that season marooned near the bottom of the depth chart. Over the first five games of his sophomore campaign, Meyers played a grand total of 22 snaps, catching one pass for 7 yards.
“I always felt like I could play, but I wasn’t confident as far as executing my responsibility, if that makes sense,” Meyers said Friday. “I knew what type of talent I had, what kind of player I was. But as far as going out there and doing the right thing when the team needed me, that one took a little bit longer. Day 1, I thought I was good enough. It just it took a lot longer to be like, ‘You know what you’re doing. If the coaches just put you in any situation, you can go out there and make that happen.’ “
That shift finally came midway through last season, when a N’Keal Harry concussion thrust Meyers into the lineup in Week 7. That game — a blowout home loss to the San Francisco 49ers — also proved to be the last of Edelman’s storied career, as lingering knee injuries sidelined him for good the following week.
With no Edelman, no Harry and no production to speak of from New England’s meager tight end group, Meyers quickly became the bell cow of the Patriots’ passing attack. He hardly left the field for the rest of the season, forcing Harry — a first-round pick one year earlier — into a reserve role upon his return. Although the Patriots’ Cam Newton-led offense struggled to move the ball through the air, Meyers thrived.
Over the final 11 weeks, Meyers ranked 15th among all NFL receivers in both receptions (58) and receiving yards (722) and in the top 10 in yards per route run, nearly equaling the output of every other Patriots pass-catcher combined. In his third career start, Meyers celebrated his 24th birthday by hauling in 12 receptions on 14 targets for 169 yards in a Monday night win over the New York Jets. He also threw two touchdown passes in subsequent victories over the Baltimore Ravens and Jets, showcasing the arm that made him a star high school QB in his home state of Georgia.
After the season, the Patriots proceeded to add Agholor and Bourne early in free agency to bolster their barren receiver room. But Meyers, flush with confidence from his second-half breakout, didn’t relinquish the top spot.
“That’s honestly something Jules would talk to me about when I first got here,” Meyers said. “He would always tell me he saw the talent that I had, he saw that I could make plays, but he would just feel like there were times where he didn’t see the confidence in me to go out there and perform to the best of my ability, which he saw. So here, Year 3, I feel like I’m a lot more confident, I understand the playbook a lot better, I know my teammates a lot better, and I just feel like I can do a lot more to help this team.”
Like Edelman, Meyers splits his time between slot and outside alignments for New England, logging 83 snaps in the former and 41 in the latter through two games, per Pro Football Focus. But he doesn’t fit the typical mold of a Patriots slot receiver. His predecessors in that spot — Edelman, Danny Amendola, Wes Welker, Troy Brown — all were short and shifty. Meyers is much taller and lankier (listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds), and though he excels as a route-runner, he isn’t blessed with Edelman’s elite, cut-on-a-dime quickness.
Head coach Bill Belichick went as far as to call Meyers “a little bit of an unusual fit” for the Patriots’ offense.
“I’ve talked to coaches that he had at NC State, and he’s just an interesting kid,” Belichick said Friday. “He’s not really the profile of a slot receiver. He’s not really a profile perimeter receiver. But he does both, and he has a good skill set that enables him to be multiple. And he’s smart. (He) just doesn’t really, I would say, fit the exact profile you would have for one particular spot. But the combination of all of them, he does pretty well, and he’s become much better in every phase of the game.”
Belichick said Meyers grew “a lot” between his second and third season, both as a player and as a leader.
“Blocking, man-to-man route running, inside routes, outside routes, zone awareness, just adjusting to the quarterback — which he’s played for now really three different quarterbacks (Brady, Newton and Jones) — that’s all part of it, too,” the coach said. “He continues to do a lot of the little things that are important not only at his position, but within the entire group and has given a lot of good leadership to the receiver group because he has the most experience in our system of any of those players.”
Fellow 2019 UDFA Gunner Olszewski called Meyers “the tone-setter” of New England’s receiver group.
“Of course, Nelly (Agholor) and KB (Bourne) have played a lot of football,” Belichick added, “but Jakobi’s played more for us. (His growth) has been very consistent. It wasn’t just Year 1 to Year 2 and then Year 2 to Year 3. He’s really moved up every year and throughout the course of each season, too.
“So I think everybody — I mean, I certainly have a lot of respect for what he’s accomplished and how hard he’s worked to work on his weaknesses and improve those areas to become a receiver that can do a lot of different things for us.”
Meyers hasn’t posted prolific stats so far this season, catching 10 passes for 82 yards in what’s been a conservative Patriots offense. But he converted four third downs in New England’s season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins (though a drop prevented a fifth conversion) and was on the receiving end of Jones’ best pass of Week 2: a 24-yard slot fade in a rout of the Jets.
Watching from afar in his new role as an “Inside the NFL” analyst, Edelman is proud of his protégé.
“I’m so happy for him, and I hope he continues to keep on finding his groove,” Edelman said. “That’s what I would always tell him: Don’t do it like me, don’t do it like Wes, don’t do it like Troy. You’re going to learn from things, but put it in your way. He’s certainly doing that, and I continue to look forward to watching him develop, because he’s got a lot more to go.”