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Film Room: Why Javon Baker Could Become Patriots Top Target

Javon Baker may have been the second receiver drafted by the Patriots, but the rookie could end this season as their most productive pass-catcher.

Projected starters Kendrick Bourne, DeMario Douglas, and K.J. Osborn are reliable Z/slot-types who thrive when operating in space. Calvin Ridley, who signed a massive deal with the Titans after being heavily recruited by New England, offered a similar skill-set, but at a higher level.

When it came to receivers with the size and skill to exploit 1-on-1 matchups on the boundary, the receiver room was severely lacking. De facto general manager Eliot Wolf acknowledged this deficiency during a press conference in early April, telling reporters: “I think we have players that can line up and play X. Do we have players that on a 3×1 can beat the backside coverage every single time? I’m not sure if we have that just yet.”

In a 3×1 formation (three eligible receivers to one side, one to the other), that backside receiver often draws man coverage, giving the defense a numbers advantage over the three-receiver side. But if the isolated receiver consistently wins his matchups, it can provide an easy answer for quarterbacks or create opportunities for others by drawing extra coverage.

The Patriots haven’t had an X with that ability since Brandin Cooks in 2017. They’ve attempted to fill the void with Josh Gordon, N’Keal Harry, Damiere Byrd, Nelson Agholor, and DeVante Parker, but none lasted more than two seasons as regular contributors.

Enter Baker, a former four-star recruit who spent two seasons at Alabama. While in Tuscaloosa, he learned from future 1st-rounders DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and Jameson Williams. After being drafted, the 4th-rounder told reporters he used to “practice and throw around” with new teammate Drake Maye when the quarterback was committed to Alabama in 2021.

After catching just nine passes in 21 games with the Crimson Tide, the talented wideout transferred to the University of Central Florida for a larger role.

Baker served as the primary X, spending over 70% of snaps out wide. He had a solid first season with UCF, catching 56 passes for 796 yards, but his efficiency exploded in 2023.

Despite catching four fewer passes than in 2022, Baker led his team with 1,139 receiving yards. His 21.9 yards per reception average led the 2024 receiver class, and he earned First-Team All-Big 12 honors for his efforts.

Baker’s numbers were even more impressive considering how many of his looks came downfield, with his 20 targets of fewer than 10 air yards ranking 3rd-lowest among drafted receivers.

He slipped in the draft due to inconsistencies (more on those later), but Baker has the physical and mental makeup to become an instant contributor with serious upside.

Here’s a deep dive into how the receiver wins and his fit in the Patriots’ new-look offense.

HOW HE WINS

While Baker isn’t exactly imposing at 6’1″, 202 lbs, his 78¼” wingspan (71st percentile), 37″ vertical jump (69th percentile), and 9⅝” hands (68th percentile) allow him to cast a wide net. His 4.54-second 40-yard dash is also pedestrian by NFL standards, but that number is misleading.

At the Senior Bowl, Baker’s 20.99 MPH max speed was second-fastest among wide receivers, with only speedster Devontez Walker (21.18 MPH) recording a better time. Baker isn’t the same type of vertical threat, but he’s fast enough to stack corners and maintain separation.

Most of his deep targets came deep down the sideline, where the margin for error is razor-thin. Baker showed he can highpoint, track passes over his shoulder, adjust to backshoulder throws, and come back to the ball to make catches through contact. He flashes fancy feet near the sideline to stay in bounds, but he’ll need to get both feet down more consistently in the NFL, especially if he’s living on the perimeter.

In addition to ball skills, body control, and vertical explosiveness, Baker wins with some of the best route-running in this year’s rookie class, allowing him to attack the entire field. His impressive stop-start ability and knack for manipulating defenders lead to easy separation, which is reflected in both the tape and the numbers.

Baker had the third-best max deceleration of any prospect at the Senior Bowl, and he was one of this class’ most efficient wideouts against tight man coverage.

Baker has a variety of releases, using speed, hesitation, and physicality to win off the line of scrimmage. In his stem, he does an excellent job attacking leverage and varying speed to make defenders uncomfortable and affect their positioning. When breaking off routes, Baker creates separation with lower-half flexibility, change of direction, and hand use. He plays with an Alpha mentality at the catch point, often plucking passes out of the air and showing competitiveness on contested targets.

Baker’s ability to get open makes him even more dangerous inside the numbers, where he can use more expansive route trees to twist defenders in knots. He alluded to this position flexibility during an appearance on Steve Smith’s YouTube channel.

Despite minimal underneath opportunities, Baker also had impressive flashes after the catch. Patriots head coach Jerod Mayo touched on this area of the receiver’s game during an appearance on The Rich Eisen Show, saying: “[Javon’s] one of those guys who has a tremendous ability to really run after the catch. And if you watch him on film, he’s one of those guys that he won’t run out of bounds. He’s looking for contact, looking to get those extra yards. And that’s valuable in this game.”

A major key to Baker’s YAC success is how he instantly transitions from receiver to runner. This allows him to maximize his spatial awareness, change direction on a dime, and avoid potential tacklers. As Mayo alluded to, Baker also plays with a running back mentality and embraces contact, with defenders slipping off of him at times.

Baker is one of the most well-rounded receivers in this year’s class. He can separate at any depth, come down with contested targets, and make people miss after the catch. However, it’s the little things that make him a well-rounded football player.

Whether it’s coming back to the ball, scooping passes from the turf, finding space when plays break down, or preventing interceptions, Baker is a quarterback’s best friend.

That effort carries over even when Baker isn’t being targeted. He’s a highly competitive blocker who consistently looks for work downfield, even if it means full-on sprinting to catch up to the play.

Now that we’ve broken down what makes Baker so valuable, let’s see how his skill set could translate with the Patriots.

SCHEME FIT

During Alex Van Pelt’s final two seasons in Cleveland, his vertical passing game ran through Amari Cooper.

Since being traded in 2022, when he was Jacoby Brissett’s top target through 12 weeks, Cooper’s been one of the league’s most productive receivers. He made his fifth Pro Bowl last season as the Browns’ primary X, though he lined up in multiple spots, and feasted on overmatched corners.

Comparing a rookie like Baker to Cooper, one of the league’s most consistent technicians, is a slippery slope. That said, the exceptional separators and ball-winners could fill similar roles.

The former Crimson Tide are about the same height, have big hands, and weren’t far apart in the broad jump and 10-yard split. Cooper is about 10 lbs bigger and ran a faster 40-yard dash, but Baker had a more explosive vertical.

Their route trees were also similar last season, with both receivers thriving on vertical routes, in-breakers, and off-schedule plays.

Baker also has some overlap with a former target of Maye’s in Tez Walker.

Both players served as their offense’s primary X and were among the most productive outside threats in their receiver class. Despite appearing in just eight games for the Tar Heels, Walker actually led the class in targets and snaps outside the numbers last season.

UNC, like Van Pelt’s recent offenses, used a heavy dose of 3×1 formations, with Maye often targeting Walker backside if he liked the look or matchup.

Having a trusted boundary threat should make Maye’s adjustment to the NFL a bit easier, and Baker gives the offense a player more akin to Cooper who can run the entire route tree and beat tight coverage.

Expecting Baker to become Cooper isn’t fair, but the rookie has the tools to carve out a special career.

OUTLOOK

New England’s passing attack will likely spread the wealth in 2024, but Baker has the talent to pull ahead in yards and scores. That said, talent only gets you so far in the NFL. It takes near-maniacal dedication for a player to reach his full potential, and Baker has his share of issues to iron out.

His 9.4% drop rate last season was the 6th-highest in this year’s receiver class. While these errors didn’t feel frequent on tape, poor technique and concentration lapses led to missed opportunities and some disastrous turnovers. He could also be more efficient in his route running, as he’ll sometimes be slow off the ball or get choppy in breaks.

The bright side is, much like Maye, Baker’s weaknesses seem correctable and pale in comparison to his strengths.

Adjusting to pro size, physicality, and patience will take some adjustment, and maximizing his role in the offense is likely a long-term endeavor. But beyond his physical gifts, Baker’s dedication and confidence should allow him to excel.

The Patriots’ second 4th-rounder wasn’t happy about falling to day three. After being drafted, he took to Instagram Live and told the NFL, “Took too f***ing long…ya gotta pay.”

Shortly after, he spoke to reporters for the first time and opened by explaining his mentality.

“Just kill whoever is on the other side of me,” Baker said with a straight face. “That’s really the Mamba mentality. That’s it.”

As incredible as the beginning of his quote was, I felt the mention of Kobe Bryant stood out the most. While speaking to Steve Smith’s channel, Baker explained how he likes to test himself by attacking a defender’s strengths, a tactic reminiscent of the Black Mamba.

Some have mistaken Baker’s confidence and bluntness, like claiming he’ll make people in wheelchairs stand up, for arrogance.

First, immense confidence is almost a prerequisite for great players who live on an island, whether you’re a receiver or cornerback. Second, Baker has the skill and intangibles to back up what he says.

Baker seems like a selfless teammate on tape, showing consistently high effort and going out of his way to assist and elevate others. That type of energy will quickly win over teammates and coaches.

Some players just feel bust-proof, and Javon Baker checks all the boxes.

He brings a unique play style and personality to New England’s offense, which should get him on the field quickly. Though Baker has the potential to be more than a standard X, his boundary receiver profile should also mesh well with Van Pelt, Maye, and Brissett early on.

For anyone still doubting Baker’s upside, I’ll let the man himself sum this one up:

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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