A little more than a week ago, Pro Football Focus released its final 2021 regular-season wide receiver rankings.
Unsurprisingly, not a single New England Patriots wideout made the cut, a reminder of the team’s lack of top-end skill-position talent. Getting representation on an otherwise arbitrary list shouldn’t be an offseason priority for Bill Belichick, but it’s also hard to ignore how many of the league’s top teams have elite receivers.
Of the top 10 receivers on the list, seven of them played in the divisional round, and three of those players were part of the instant classic between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, two teams New England is chasing in the AFC hierarchy. Another two play for the Cincinnati Bengals who have a chance to win the conference title Sunday in KC.
Maybe the Patriots believe Mac Jones is the sort of quarterback who can elevate his pass-catchers. Maybe they believe they can lean on a top-tier running attack reinforced by a strong defense that can fluster offenses like Buffalo, Kansas City or Cincinnati. But that’s easier said than done, as the Bills have shown recently in their last four meetings with the Patriots, averaging 36 points per game in games not played in a wind tunnel.
A free-agent splash for someone like Davante Adams or Chris Godwin feels unlikely, meaning the best path to explosive receiver play is through the draft. The problem with that, from the Patriots’ standpoint, is their recent inability to identify and develop talent at the position.
Just look at the remaining teams in the playoffs. Take the San Francisco 49ers, for example. They took Deebo Samuel, the third-best receiver in the league on the PFF rankings, with the No. 36 pick — four selections after the Patriots took N’Keal Harry in 2019. As we all pretty much know at this point, the Patriots’ selection of Harry looks even worse when you consider Samuel, AJ Brown, Mecole Hardman and DK Metcalf all went in that second round. It really doesn’t get worse than that.
But it doesn’t get better, either. The Patriots traded out of the first round in 2020 and missed on the chance to take Brandon Aiyuk (who went No. 25 to the Niners) or even Tee Higgins, whom Cincinnati selected with the first pick in the second round.
It’s also not an instance where you need to be drafting high to get a game-changer. The emphasis on the passing game has vaulted players like Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith to the top of draft boards, but there are impact players in just about every round. Stefon Diggs was a fifth-round pick. So was Hunter Renfrow. Tyler Lockett was a third-rounder, as were Godwin and Terry McLaurin. All of them would be the Patriots’ top receiver.
At the very least, getting faster might help. The Patriots ranked 29th in an ESPN preseason ranking of team speed. FootballPerspective.com did a deep dive on receivers’ 40-yard times and found the average combine dash for wideouts was 4.51 seconds.
Here’s how the Patriots’ receivers stack up:
Kendrick Bourne: 4.68 seconds
Nelson Agholor: 4.42 seconds
Jakobi Meyers: 4.63 seconds
N’Keal Harry: 4.53 seconds
Speed doesn’t necessarily equate to success at the position — as evidenced by Agholor being the speediest of the bunch — but it does seem noteworthy that everyone else is average at best.
The Patriots do have an adequate stable of receivers, tight ends and running backs. Not every offense needs to be built the same in order to have success, and New England has found past success in bucking the league’s trends. Not to mention, they still had the 11th-best passing offense by EPA and ninth-best by DVOA.
The passing offense is, well, passable, but adding a new element to the unit could amplify everything else while helping New England take yet another step in regaining one of the NFL’s top offenses.