FOXBORO, Mass. — When Cam Newton needed a clutch completion, he threw to Jakobi Meyers.
When Mac Jones needed to move the chains on third down, he threw to Jakobi Meyers.
When Bailey Zappe was finding his footing in his first NFL start, he threw to Jakobi Meyers. Then he threw to him again. And again. And again.
Meyers, who’d missed the previous two weeks with a knee injury, caught seven passes on eight targets for 111 yards and a touchdown last Sunday, carrying the Patriots’ Zappe-led passing attack in a 29-0 win over the Detroit Lions at Gillette Stadium. The rest of the Patriots’ six-man receiving corps combined for 8 yards on three catches.
It was yet another reminder that Meyers, for the third season running, is both New England’s most reliable wideout and its best. The Patriots’ leader in receptions and receiving yards in 2020 and 2021, he again paces the team in both categories by comfortable margins so far this season — despite playing in just three of its five games.
Meyers rarely is recognized as a premier receiver, either by Patriots fans or by the greater NFL community. But his 2022 numbers measure up against the league’s elite. Entering Week 6, he’s seventh among all qualified pass-catchers in receptions per game (6.7) and sixth in receiving yards per game (87.0), trailing only Justin Jefferson, Cooper Kupp, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown in the latter.
The advanced metrics paint a similar picture. Meyers is Pro Football Focus’ fifth-highest-graded wideout (behind Kupp, Diggs, Hill and Brown), and of the 184 receivers/tight ends who have run routes on at least 40 snaps, only Hill is averaging more yards per route run.
What’s allowed Meyers, a former undrafted free agent, to perform at such a high level? To answer that question, we asked the players who face him in practice each day: New England’s defensive backs.
Meyers is not a straight-line burner, nor an elite athlete. But his routecraft and textbook footwork — skills that have been evident since his first NFL summer in 2019 — make him a deceptively tough cover for opposing DBs.
Safety Adrian Phillips raved about Meyers’ agility, which he said rivals that of perennial Pro Bowler Keenan Allen and All-Pro Davante Adams.
“He can’t be guarded,” Phillips told NESN.com on Wednesday. “I would say that’s the main thing. His agility is just crazy. You can tell he learned from guys like (Julian Edelman), because Jules being in the slot, he was one of those guys that even if he was doubled, it was hard to guard him, as well. You add that with the agility and the fact that (Meyers) used to be a quarterback, (and) he has soft hands that are freaking like pillows, it just makes him a tough cover for a lot of guys.
“I would just say his agility is close to being unmatched. Like, Keenan has that, too. Davante Adams, they have that, too. But he’s a guy that’s flying under the radar. When you turn on that tape, he’s making people fall. It’s crazy.”
Phillips sees an obvious Edelman influence in Meyers’ game. Meyers learned under the legendary Patriots slot receiver as a rookie before succeeding him midway through his second season.
“You can tell that he watched (Edelman) and actually paid attention to him and actually was a student of his game, because Jules was just always giving you something,” Phillips said. “No matter what the route was, he was giving you something. He could have you beat, but he was still going to give you a little something just to ensure that you wouldn’t be able to predict his next move. And Jakobi does the same thing.”
At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Meyers isn’t built like Edelman, Danny Amendola, Wes Welker and Troy Brown. He’s taller and more slender, though he did pack on some extra muscle this offseason. Not the undersized jitterbug type like most previous New England slots.
But Myles Bryant, who often lines up opposite Meyers as New England’s top slot corner, said he boasts rare separation ability for a player his size.
“I think it’s his suddenness,” Bryant said. “I think for a guy that big, it’s kind of rare to see how sudden he moves. He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s able to get open just with how quick he is off the line and how big he is. (He’s) able to create separation at the top of the route, at the line of scrimmage, and he’s just dependable. He does all the right things that the coaches ask for just in terms of his route depth, coming in and out of his breaks, not wasting movement and then being able to catch the ball. I think all of those things make him the receiver that he is.”
He added: “He’s a bigger guy, so you don’t expect him to do certain routes that smaller guys would do. But he’s able to do it just as well as them.”
Bryant also mentioned Meyers’ proficiency in another area. He’s not built like a N’Keal Harry or Lil’Jordan Humphrey, but Titans head coach Mike Vrabel last year called him the Patriots’ best run-blocking wideout, and advanced metrics suggest he’s been one of the best in the NFL this season. Among the 69 receivers with at least 60 run-blocking snaps, Meyers’ PFF blocking grade ranks ninth.
“An underrated part of his game is his blocking,” Bryant said. “I think a lot of people don’t see that. When people think of receivers, they just think of guys catching the ball, but there’s a whole other aspect to it that needs to be appreciated. His blocking is one of the best. They ask him to do a lot, and he’s able to do it.”
Veteran safety Devin McCourty has witnessed the entirety of Meyers’ rise from unheralded and overwhelmed UDFA to linchpin of the Patriots’ passing game. He also sees shades of Edelman in the 25-year-old, saying both have the physical and mental skills — honed in their prior lives as quarterbacks — to weaponize defenders’ own expectations against them.
“I think quickness,” McCourty said. “I think obviously playing the quarterback position like he did before, he has a great understanding of DBs’ leverage. He knows how to use your leverage against you. It’s very similar to watching over the years when I used to watch Jules be in the slot and run certain routes (that) go against what we’re taught as defensive backs. They’ll do some things that kind of break those rules, and by the time you know it, he snaps out of a route.
“You know he’s not the fastest guy once he gets going long speed-wise, but he is quick, and I think he’s done a great job of just continuing to get better from when he got here in 2019. Each year, you’ve seen growth in his game.”