Patriots Mailbag: Nelson Agholor’s Impact; Jonnu Smith’s Role; Wideout To Watch

Answering your Patriots questions ahead of Week 17


Dec 31, 2021

The New England Patriots will host the Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

At least, what’s left of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Jags, who sit at 2-13 and already suffer from one of the NFL’s weakest rosters, are the latest team to be ravaged by the recent league-wide surge in COVID-19 cases. As of Thursday evening, they had a total of 27 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including 13 who are listed as starters on their online depth chart.

Jacksonville also lost one of its best players, running back James Robinson, to a season-ending Achilles tear last Sunday. Things are not going well for Trevor Lawrence and Co.

A number of these COVID players could return by Sunday if they satisfy the proper NFL protocols, but if the Jaguars don’t get a significant percentage of them back, the league could consider postponing this matchup to Monday or Tuesday, as they did with multiple games earlier this month.

That would be highly detrimental for New England, which then would need to play the Miami Dolphins on short rest in Week 18. Despite the competitive advantage of playing against a COVID-depleted opponent, the Patriots surely are hoping this outbreak eases enough for the game to be played as scheduled.

The Patriots also are dealing with a smaller-scale COVID situation. As of Thursday, they had five players on COVID reserve: linebackers Matthew Judon, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Josh Uche, backup quarterback Brian Hoyer and special teamer Brandon King. All could be activated in time for Sunday’s game.

Let’s get to your questions:

Did Sunday show how valuable Aghalor is even when not catching the ball? Opens up a lot underneath.
Yes. Not having Nelson Agholor’s field-stretching ability removed an important element from the Patriots’ passing game.

Agholor hasn’t been especially productive in his first year in New England (36 catches, 450 yards, three touchdowns), but defenses need to respect him as a deep threat, which creates space for other options at the short and intermediate levels.

It reminded me of something Jakobi Meyers said back in training camp:

“I’m not going to necessarily blaze past everybody. But Nelson, he’ll leave you if you’re not locked in on him. It makes it a lot easier for guys underneath.”

With Agholor out with a concussion and Kendrick Bourne limited after a week on the reserve/COVID-19 list, it was easier for the Buffalo Bills to zero in on and erase tight end Hunter Henry, which they did (six targets, one catch, 9 yards). Meyers had a decent day with six catches on eight targets for 59 yards, but quarterback Mac Jones was just 8-for-24 when targeting all other Patriots pass-catchers.

N’Keal Harry saw the largest uptick in playing time in Agholor’s absence and again was a relative non-factor, finishing with two receptions on five targets for 15 yards with one wince-inducing drop. Agholor has yet to return to practice, so it’s unclear if he’ll be available Sunday.

Do you think that the Patriots will offer/do a deal with JC Jackson after this season or will they let him go?
I think the franchise tag is the most likely outcome for Jackson. He’d be the best cornerback on the market if he hits free agency and, as such, likely would command a more lucrative contract than the Patriots would be willing or able to pay. Franchising Jackson would be pricey, too — projections put it around $17.3 million — but letting him walk would leave a massive hole in the Patriots’ secondary.

Former NFL agent Joel Corry included Jackson on his list of this year’s 11 most likely franchise tag recipients.

Do we see Ronnie Perkins this year or is it a red shirt year for him
Redshirt year. The Patriots placed Perkins on injured reserve two weeks ago after a long string of healthy scratches. I doubt he’ll play his first official NFL snaps until 2022, but he will be a player to watch in OTAs and training camp. The third-round draft pick showed promise this past summer.

Do you think Belichick will draft Mac a WR from Bama this offseason? Someone he’s comfy with and a # 1
I don’t start really digging into the draft until after the season ends, so I don’t have much to offer about potential Patriots targets just yet. But I will have my eye on Jameson Williams when Alabama takes on Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff semifinals Friday afternoon.

I really liked John Metchie when watching Jones’ 2020 film, but he’s out with an injury and won’t be playing in the CFP. Williams has been crazy productive this season (68 catches, 1,445 yards, 15 touchdowns) after transferring in from Ohio State. Williams also is a factor on special teams, which surely will endear him to Bill Belichick.

The question there is whether Belichick would be open to drafting a receiver in the first round, where Williams currently is projected to go. The Patriots only have taken one first-round receiver since Belichick arrived in 2000, and that pick (Harry at No. 32 overall in 2019) has not worked out.

Why isn’t Jonnu more involved in the passing game? Diminished skills, scheme, what? Shocked he’s not a bigger factor

It’s surprised me, too. I expected more from Jonnu Smith. As I wrote this week, multiple advanced stats services rank him as one of the NFL’s worst tight ends this season, and his traditional stats are equally underwhelming.

Since catching nine passes on 10 targets over his first two games as a Patriot, Smith has just 18 catches on 34 targets for 204 yards and one touchdown. Those marks rank tied for 42nd, 37th and tied for 38th, respectively, among tight ends over that span. During New England’s current two-game losing streak, Smith has nearly as many penalties (two) as receiving yards (3). Jones did not target him at all during Sunday’s loss to the Bills.

Yet the numbers show Smith actually has been effective when he has the ball in his hands. He’s fourth in the NFL and second among tight ends in yards after catch per reception (8.1), per NFL Next Gen Stats.

That’s long been Smith’s greatest strength. He was third among tight ends in YAC per reception last season (6.3) and second in 2019 (8.4). And offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels still believes he can be a weapon for the Patriots. McDaniels said Tuesday that he needs to find more ways to get Smith involved.

“There’s no question about that: He’s a player that can do some things with the ball in his hands,” he said. “We know that. Very talented guy, works really hard. I’ve got to do better to get him the ball.”

We’ll see what form that takes over these final few weeks, if any. The Patriots have mostly used Smith as a run blocker to this point (despite him being one of Pro Football Focus’s lowest-graded run-blocking tight ends). He’s run routes on just 32.5% of his offensive snaps, per PFF. Henry has been their preferred pass-catching option at the position, running routes on 56.1% of his snaps.

Excluding Gronk, why does every TE in a Josh run offense underperform relative to their ability? From Watson/Graham, through Den, STL and back in NE?

I wouldn’t say that’s true of every tight end outside of Rob Gronkowski. Martellus Bennett was very good for the Patriots in 2016. And I think some people are discounting how productive and valuable Henry has been this season.

He hasn’t put up peak Gronk-level numbers, but that’s an unfair bar to set. No NFL tight end has more touchdown catches through 16 weeks than Henry’s nine. This Patriots offense would be lost in the red zone without him.

Smith has been a disappointment thus far. Henry has been a big hit.

If we beat the Jags and Miami wins out. How do our playoffs chances look?

Depends on how the Las Vegas Raiders fare. If the Patriots beat Jacksonville but lose in Miami in Week 18 and the Dolphins and Raiders both win out, New England would be out of the playoffs, unless Buffalo also loses its final two games.

Got all that? That’s the doomsday scenario for the Patriots. It’s also highly unlikely. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 94% chance of making the postseason even after their two-game losing streak.

The Patriots can clinch a playoff spot this Sunday with a win over the Jags and a loss by either the Dolphins (against the Tennessee Titans) or the Raiders (against the Indianapolis Colts). There are also several other clinching scenarios involving a Patriots-Jaguars tie.

What needs to happen in your opinion for Patriots – Miami to be flexed to primetime next week.

It’s definitely a flex candidate, but only if the Patriots don’t clinch this weekend. The NFL could opt to shift the game to Saturday if New England already had a playoff spot locked down and Miami was still in the hunt, but I think that’s much less likely.

The ideal scenario from an NFL intrigue standpoint would be for the Patriots to lose Sunday and the Dolphins win, setting up a potential winner-take-all matchup in Week 18. That, of course, is something the Patriots are trying to avoid, especially since they’re just 2-6 in their last eight trips to Miami.

The NFL will flex two Week 18 games into a Saturday doubleheader. Here are a few other matchups that could be flexed, depending on how playoff battles around the league shake out this weekend:

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens
Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders
San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

Thumbnail photo via Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports Images
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