The Patriots have a well-documented history of failing to draft and develop wide receivers.
Earlier this week, New England declined former first-round pick N’Keal Harry’s fifth-year option, which again brought to light how the Patriots missed on the 2019 receiver class.
Along with Harry, who was the first wide receiver selected in the first round by the Patriots under Bill Belichick, New England is 30th in career average approximate value from the seven wide receivers it selected in the top 100 over the last 20-plus drafts.
Harry was also a deviation for a team that isn’t known for selecting wide receivers early, as the seven top-100 picks are tied for 29th in terms of investment at the position.
The Patriots don’t typically hit on wide receivers or invest in wide receivers in the NFL Draft. However, new Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh shared his feelings about the wide receiver position, saying, “you’ve got to be proactive about getting one of them.”
New England was proactive when it moved up four spots in the second round via trade to land Baylor speedster Tyquan Thornton with the 50th overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft.
After testing as the fastest wide receiver at the 2022 Combine with a 4.28-second 40-yard dash, Thornton is a complete departure from Harry’s skill set as a prospect.
At over 6-foot-2 and 181 pounds, the former Baylor star is a lean vertical threat with game-breaking speed and separation ability. In other words, the total opposite of a contested-catch artist like Harry.
Still, with a poor track record that gives everyone pause when they take a receiver, why should Patriots fans have confidence in Thornton succeeding where others have not?
In an interview this week with CLNS Media, former Baylor wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey feels that Thornton is uniquely talented to thrive in New England’s complex passing system.
Before becoming a coach, Stuckey spent five seasons in the NFL as a wide receiver with two former Belichick assistants in Eric Mangini (head coach) and Brian Daboll (QBs/offensive coordinator). As a result, he has been coaching Thornton for this moment.
“In my time in the league, I was always in a version of the New England offense, so that’s all I know,” Stuckey told CLNS Media. “That’s how I taught my guys to play and understand defenses. Understand the entirety of the play. So I expect him [Thornton] to be successful.”
The Patriots’ offense is frequently seen as the most complex scheme at any level of football. Mainly, players must understand the entire concept, not just their individual assignment.
Due to the optionality of the scheme, if you don’t understand what the receiver next to you is doing, and why, it can throw off the entire play if one receiver converts his route incorrectly.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for how intelligent he is and how quickly he grasps things. He’s extremely smart, he loves ball,” Stuckey continued. “Now that he gets to do it full time, he’s really going to study. He really wants to be great. He’s super competitive.”
After former head coach Matt Rhule left the school to become the head coach with the Carolina Panthers, Stuckey joined new head coach Dave Aranda at Baylor in the 2020 season.
Thornton was coming off a breakout 2019 campaign where he caught 45 passes for 782 yards and five touchdowns and was considering transferring closer to home due to the new coaching regime.
“He was my first five-star recruit because he was about to leave. I had to talk him into coming back,” Stuckey said. “In those conversations, I think we both got an appreciation for each other. He valued that I played in the league and that we understood how to use him.”
Stuckey explained that once Thornton decided to stay at Baylor, he began to buy into the little things to take his game to the next level.
“I think that’s ultimately what helped him develop into what he could really be by taking in the fundamentals and buying into doing the small things. When he began to do that, he began to mature on and off the field to be the kind of guy he is now.”
Thornton’s buy-in improved when he developed better practice habits and learned how to harness his “superpower,” as Stuckey called it, which of course, is his speed.
“I said if you’re a superhero, what would your superpower be? He said, ‘oh, that’s easy, speed.’ Okay. So, in Superman, you don’t see him running around using his strength all the time, like he wouldn’t have anything to drink, like crushing all the glasses and stuff.”
“He only uses it when he needs to use it. So you have to control your superpower. We talked about speed fluctuation, how to use it, when to use it, then we started talking about releases, burst steps, and how to get open. You don’t get open through speed.”
“You may run full speed twice a day. That’s a misconception. Everything doesn’t have to be so fast all the time. He started to do it in practice, then it happened in the game the exact same way, and that’s when he really began to buy in,” Stuckey explained.
Along with learning to vary speeds and the finer details of route-running, Stuckey saw a noticeable shift in Thornton’s effort on the practice field.
“If you’re practicing hard and bursting, you’re preparing to be successful. So he began to do that for two weeks. He would catch a slant or dig and take them to the house.”
“Then, we play West Virginia, and boom, it happens. He catches a slant, and he goes about 60. He comes back and looks at me and says, ‘that’s the drill!’ That’s the moment where, okay, I think he’s got it. He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with, and that was the moment.”
Thornton finished his final collegiate season with a career-high 62 catches for 948 yards and ten touchdowns, earning All-Big 12 second-team honors from the Associated Press.
After an impressive showing at the East-West Shrine Bowl, where he made an impact in a crash-course environment, Thornton solidified his stock as a day-two prospect at the combine.
Although Patriots fans and pundits have reservations about New England draft picks at wide receiver, Stuckey is confident that Thornton has what it takes to succeed at the next level.
“He’s malleable, he’ll take coaching, and he has a high standard of accountability. If you have those things, and you don’t get offended by coaches coming after [you], he’ll be fine. He’s uber-competitive. The physical tools are going to be there.”
The Pats made a surprising selection when they took Thornton 50th overall, both because of where experts had Thornton ranked in this year’s receiver class and their history at the position.
But at some point, their luck has to turn, and Thornton might be the one who finally hits.