The Patriots’ search for a downfield receiver to play outside the numbers has taken Bill Belichick down several paths in recent seasons.
New England traded for Josh Gordon in 2018, drafted N’Keal Harry in the first round in 2019, signed Antonio Brown for a one-game stint, traded a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu, and signed wide receiver Nelson Agholor to a two-year contract in free agency last offseason.
None of those moves have netted a consistent contributor, and the shortcomings New England’s had in the outside receiver department have caused problems offensively.
Last season, the goal was to get a speed element out of Agholor rather than a bigger contested-catch receiver like Gordon or Harry.
Although there are still Agholor supporters in the building, Mac Jones’s opening drive interception against Buffalo was a play that stood out. Could Jones have held Bills safety Micah Hyde longer in the middle of the field? Sure. But Agholor was behind the defense, and the ball was there. What wasn’t there was the high-pointing ability to go above two Buffalo defenders and finish at the catch point. It’s not a shot at Agholor, per se, that’s not his game, and it showed in his first season with the Pats.
New England’s goal this offseason was to find a better version of N’Keal Harry, a big-bodied receiver and downfield ball-winner who can out-muscle defensive backs on contested catches.
Belichick’s quest saw the team kick the tires on Allen Robinson, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Odell Beckham Jr., and several others who were better suited to make that catch in Buffalo.
Eventually, the veteran market led to a rare in-division trade with their rivals down in Miami.
According to multiple reports, the Patriots acquired former Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker and a 2022 fifth-round draft choice in exchange for a 2023 third-round draft pick.
At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Parker was a first-round pick in 2015, possessing an intriguing blend of size and 4.45-speed that Miami was hopeful would make him a three-level threat.
In 2019, Parker put it all together for 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns. But it was the only full season he played for the Dolphins, with several injuries plaguing him throughout his career.
Parker will help the Pats fill the outside receiver void with a more physical presence when healthy. After reviewing his 2021 film, keep in mind he’s not a burner. The 29-year-old, whether due to injury or other reasons, won’t run by NFL cornerbacks.
Instead, what makes Parker effective is sequencing together hitches, comebacks, and slants to create explosive plays on fades and back shoulders. Since 2019, Parker leads the NFL with 57 contested catches.
Above is a heat map via SportsSource Analytics that shows where Parker accumulated his catches last season. As you can see, most of his receptions were within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, for an average depth of target of 12.4 yards. Parker was targeted only seven times on throws of 20-plus yards and made four catches.
Parker’s quarterback play by a weaker armed passer in Tua Tagovailoa was a factor, as only 7.5% of Tua’s 388 pass attempts traveled more than 20 yards last season. For comparison, Mac Jones threw the deep ball on 11.3% of his throws in his rookie campaign.
Nevertheless, Parker unlocks his downfield wins by making CBs respect shorter throws. Every good vertical route runner needs those underneath wins. Otherwise, corners will sit all over the vertical routes, and you’re a one-trick pony (hello, N’Keal Harry).
So the new Pats wideout sequences together hitches/slants (off-coverage) and comeback routes (press-man) to help him set up defenders for the deep ball.
Here, Parker lines up at the X against a bailing corner. When the corner retreats off the line before the snap, Parker runs a quick hitch for an easy completion, then breaks a tackle to pick up extra yards after the catch.
Another off-coverage winner that the Dolphins presented Parker with was slant-flat combinations. They catch the Pats in a cover-three shell here, and the flat route takes the underneath defender out of the passing lane for Tua to hit Parker against an out-leveraged corner.
Parker will then go to comeback routes along the sideline at the intermediate level. Above, he uses a motor release to open a pathway down the boundary. After the slight hesitation, Parker puts his foot on the gas to get the CB to open his hips upfield, then suddenly stops down at the top of the route to create separation.
Once he gets corners to respect the underneath throws, deeper shots follow.
Colts corner Xavier Rhodes plays a trail technique low on Parker’s inside hip after Parker beat him earlier on the comeback route. When Parker starts stacking over the top, Rhodes catches up, so he slams on the brakes and finishes through contact on the back shoulder fade.
They went away from the off-coverage match zones in the Buffalo game to play cover-two man here. With the corner playing underneath Parker, Tua puts the ball on the sideline and lets his 6-foot-3 wideout make a play along the sideline.
New England stopped playing off-coverage zone against Miami in the season-opener because the Dolphins were beating them with slants, and Parker made them pay by beating J.C. Jackson on a jump ball.
Along with his size and leaping ability, Parker demonstrates excellent awareness and body control to toe-tap in bounds along the sideline.
Miami would also occasionally line Parker up either in the slot or tighter to the formation, then use his size on slants and other routes over the middle of the field for box-out opportunities.
Although it’s still a simplified route tree, Parker has three established routes that complement his fades, making him a tough matchup.
A Patriots-adjacent player comparison would be Josh Gordon in 2018-19. One would expect Parker’s role to essentially be the same as Gordon’s.
As far as what the trade means moving forward, it feels like a lock that N’Keal Harry will be dealt. The Pats still believe Agholor can help their team, and his speed brings a different element than Parker’s contested-catch ability. For now, the smart money is on Agholor staying.
In the draft, New England should have an eye on a more prolific separator who can grow with Mac Jones throughout their rookie contracts. But the team has used similar trades as their reasoning for reluctance to use another high-end asset at the position in the past (see: Sanu, Mohamed).
You can never rule out anything. However, using either of their top two picks on a wideout would be a departure from past precedent.
Acquiring Parker gives the Patriots a wide receiver with legitimate number one upside, and that in itself is reason to like the trade for New England.