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Film Room: Why Ja’Lynn Polk Could Become Versatile Weapon for Patriots

Despite being one of last season’s most productive college receivers, Ja’Lynn Polk was a somewhat divisive pick at 37th overall.

Though some media pundits were on board with the selection, others debated whether the Washington product was a reach. New England lost out on separator Ladd McConkey by trading the 34th pick. Controversial but explosive prospects like Adonai Mitchell and Jermaine Burton were still on the board when Polk was taken. Undersized dynamos Malachi Corley and Roman Wilson and skinny speedster Troy Franklin were also available.

However, it’s hard to argue any of these options were more consistent, versatile, or well-rounded than Polk.

Executive VP of Player Personnel Eliot Wolf explained what made Polk so valuable shortly after the receiver was drafted.

“Yeah, he’s a guy that we had our eye on for a while. He’s a really good fit in our offense,” Wolf said. “He’s really tough, he’s strong, he can run all the routes, play inside-outside. He’s a good blocker. He’s really competitive, both for the ball in the air and as a run-after-catch player. He’s really just kind of a versatile, do-everything type guy. He ran a little bit faster than a lot of people expected, but when you turn the tape on, you see him running by people. So, definitely excited to add him to the mix.”

Polk began his college career at Texas Tech during a pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Wanting a fresh start, he transferred to Washington in 2021 but missed nine games with a collarbone injury. Polk rebounded with a solid sophomore season, then broke out his junior year as the Robin to Rome Odunze’s Batman.

Polk has also been praised for his leadership and maturity, traits New England seemed to target with their top picks. According to Dane Brugler, Washington’s coaching staff “speaks highly of [Polk’s] work ethic and daily approach, in both practices and games.” Former head coach Kalen DeBoer called Polk “one of the toughest and strongest kids we have on the football team.”

Collegiate success and off-field acclaim are solid foundations, but how will they translate in the NFL? Here’s a deep dive into how Polk wins and his potential fit in the Patriots’ new-look offense.

HOW HE WINS

Between his ball tracking, magnetic hands, and fearlessness at the catch-point, Polk is a quarterback’s best friend. His 88th-percentile broad jump and 75th-percentile vertical jump are evident when elevating to high-point passes, and only Odunze and Luke McCaffrey made more contested grabs last season. 

Consistency as a receiver should allow him to produce quickly, but Polk’s selfless blocking could lead to immediate playing time. His tone-setting physicality, relentless effort, and infectious enthusiasm made him a focal point of the Huskies’ run game.

Ja’Lynn Polk Blocking

Washington took full advantage of this unique skill, using Polk as a pseudo-H-back on some plays. Rather than simply digging out corners and safeties, he was asked to take on linebackers and even defensive linemen. Despite these difficult assignments, he never flinched and consistently held his ground. He also let defenders hear it when he came out on top.

This type of effort can elevate a run game from good to great, making Polk a valuable commodity on early downs and short-yardage situations.

Polk reaped the fruits of this labor on play-action dropbacks. Over 20% of Polk’s downfield targets came on crossing routes, where he crept behind second-level defenders frozen by run fakes. These reps featured jaw-dropping adjustments and finishes, which sometimes made up for poor accuracy from Michael Penix Jr.

Ja’Lynn Polk on Crossing Routes

Double moves, specifically out-and-ups and post-corners, were another integral part of Polk’s success. These routes highlight his salesmanship, with Polk using both his head and body to sell his initial break. He’s also physical against jam attempts in his stem, swiping away or fighting through contact to beat tight coverage.

Ja’Lynn Polk on Double Moves

While deception played a big role in Polk’s production, he created plenty of big plays on his own. One of his primary man-beaters was the go route, where he typically lined up at or near the top of the numbers for easier access to the sideline.

Ja’Lynn Polk on Go Routes

Polk isn’t a burner, but he has enough juice to stack press corners when given a free release. If a defender is on his hip, he’ll hand-fight to (legally) push off or keep them at bay. He’s also an exceptional deep ball tracker, using late hands to avoid tipping the arrival of passes.

On routes like curls and outs, Polk uses pace to keep defenders on their toes before breaking down with smooth hips and knee bend. He also has a knack for exploiting space in zones and works his way back to the quarterback when necessary.

As a ball carrier, Polk shows toughness and quick change of direction. While he isn’t a dynamic YAC threat, he’ll take advantage of wide alleys, poor angles, and half-hearted tackle attempts.

Ja’Lynn Polk After the Catch

Now that we’ve broken down Polk’s skill set let’s examine his potential fit in offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt’s offense.

SCHEME FIT

When Van Pelt was with the Browns, the ground game and formation versatility were offensive staples. Like Polk at Washington, Donovan Peoples-Jones handled most of the dirty work in Cleveland’s scheme. Though primarily used as a Z receiver, he lined up at multiple spots and was consistently near the action.

Donovan Peoples-Jones Blocking

New England’s receiver room is full of high-effort blockers, but Polk may be the best of the bunch. Since he and Peoples-Jones have handled similar assignments, the rookie seems like a perfect fit to assume that role in the Patriots’ new offense.

The similarities don’t stop there, as the receivers ran very similar route trees.

When Peoples-Jones played with now-Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett in Cleveland, the two thrived on go and in routes. These targets typically came in obvious pass situations with Peoples-Jones out wide, often from the X spot. Brissett wasn’t afraid to test tight coverage, and the veteran receiver’s contested catch ability led to some highlight-reel connections, particularly down the sideline.

Jacoby Brissett to Donovan Peoples-Jones

Unlike Peoples-Jones, Polk typically ran his go routes from just inside the numbers, and he was targeted on just two in routes last season. Polk could certainly benefit from free releases early in his career, which will help minimize the increased press coverage he’ll face as a pro. That said, he has the tools to slide into Peoples-Jones’ old role and even build on it with time.

While Brissett is slated to begin 2024 as the Patriots’ starting quarterback, he’s just keeping the seat warm for Drake Maye. The 3rd overall pick was one of the most aggressive passers in college football, but a lack of quality receiving talent led to several missed opportunities.

Polk’s strong hands, focus, and indifference to contact should endear him to Maye, whose accuracy is still a work in progress. Based on footage from the Patriots’ social media team, New England’s top picks, along with Javon Baker, have already started building their rapport.

OUTLOOK

Like any first-year player, Polk is far from a finished product, but he has the mentality to maximize his potential.

My mindset is just ‘be different,'” Polk said in a press conference shortly after being drafted. “A lot of guys have put in a lot of work, so in order to separate yourself, you’ve got to find a way that you can be different within yourself. So, challenging myself, finding my weaknesses, the things that I need to work on to be able to excel in my game and separate myself from the best. So, just continuously have that high standard mindset of wanting to be better each and every day, pushing the guys around me and being a leader.”

That leadership has been evident early on. Polk led receiver drills during the Patriots’ rookie minicamp and was vocal throughout practice. During the team’s first OTA session, Maye and his rookie receivers were among the last players to leave the field.

Polk has also shown impressive self-awareness for a young player, giving reporters a detailed explanation of how he wants to improve.

“Just having more energy in my routes, being more efficient coming out of my breaks,” Polk said. “Being more explosive, being able to break off those tackles, make that extra guy miss, utilizing my body and my strengths. Knowing that I’m a physical receiver, stiff-arming a guy and making that guy miss. So, I’m excited to be able to show the world what I can do again and go help this team win games.”

While the Patriots have many capable pass-catchers on their roster, none offer Polk’s combination of high-level blocking, position flexibility, and three-level proficiency. Pair that profile with exemplary mental makeup, and he could become a rare homerun for New England at the wide receiver position.

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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