The Patriots have dealt with some tough injuries this season, but Kendrick Bourne being placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL is the first that feels truly insurmountable. The tough reality is that New England’s unproven wide receiver room may lack the talent to steady an already sinking ship. Bourne’s chemistry with Mac Jones, ability to separate, and knack for making plays as a ball carrier are a combination that doesn’t exist elsewhere on the roster.
The third-year Patriot was by far the receiving corps’ most productive player through eight weeks, and he was in the midst of a career year. Bourne was the only pass-catcher with 35+ targets (55), 30+ receptions (37), 250+ receiving yards (406), more than two receiving touchdowns (four), or double-digit receptions of 15+ yards (12).
Members of the organization have also echoed the importance of Bourne’s irreplaceable enthusiasm and leadership, both on and off the field. Mike Onwenu called Bourne a “big loss for us,” noting the receiver’s energy and fire. Matthew Slater praised Bourne for his authenticity and for providing a “contagious energy that’s unmatched.” Bill O’Brien didn’t sugarcoat things either while speaking to reporters yesterday, saying, “Injuries are tough… KB brought a lot of energy, a lot of juice to this offense and really attacked every day… He’s a great guy and was having a really good year.”
The Patriots could start feeding Hunter Henry to make up for Bourne’s lost targets, and Mike Gesicki has been deployed similarly to Bourne at times, but the wide receiver room must step up to keep the offense from being hogtied schematically. The results may not be ideal, but even with the AFC’s worst record, it’s too early in the season for New England to completely throw in the towel.
Here are my thoughts on who from the group could help replace Bourne’s role and production in the wake of his season-ending injury.
Bourne has been the Patriots’ main “Z” receiver this season, often aligning outside to the tight end(s) side or as the slot in two-receiver sets. This is a key role in the Patriots’ offense, where blocking ability is essential, and receivers must be able to win when pressed against outside corners.
JuJu Smith-Schuster has also filled this role from New England’s two-wide receiver groupings, making him the most likely candidate to replace Bourne. This is exactly what happened against the Dolphins, as Smith-Schuster didn’t play a snap until Bourne went down after disappointing in the first five weeks and missing two games with a concussion. The team’s top free agent signing was targeted just once on 11 routes run, but it was on a schemed target that looked similar to Bourne’s touchdown against the Bills.
Looked like JuJu Smith-Schuster fully took over for Kendrick Bourne last week when Bourne went down
JuJu’s late TD came on a similar schemed target to KB’s score from the previous week pic.twitter.com/z8laRvocro
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 1, 2023
Smith-Schuster makes sense in the Z role as one of the team’s biggest receivers, and he could be a better fit there than he was in the slot. Nearly all of the veteran’s downfield production has come on curls, which were a staple of Bourne’s route tree, and run-blocking seemed to be the main culprit behind his high snap count earlier this season.
The biggest concern with Smith-Schuster is that he and Jones haven’t had great chemistry on the field, and the receiver hasn’t been consistent enough to assume he can replicate Bourne’s reliability. Smith-Schuter’s two drops are tied for the most on the team despite missing back-to-back games, and his 60.0% catch rate is tied with DeVante Parker for the lowest among Patriots receivers with at least 10 targets. This is especially alarming since Smith-Schuster is last among the wide receivers with a 5.6-yard average depth of target, compared to Parker’s 10.7 average (1st on NE, min. 10 targets) and Bourne’s 10.5 average (2nd on NE, min. 10 targets). Smith-Schuster also has fewer yards after catch per reception (2.2) than Hunter Henry (2.3).
Tyquan Thornton’s spent most of his NFL snaps at Z, but since being activated from injured reserve in Week 5, he has just one six-yard catch on two targets past the line of scrimmage. Thornton also caught just 51.3% of his targets as a rookie, struggled to earn reps with the top offense in training camp, and was a healthy scratch in a crowded wide receiver room last week. But Bill O’Brien called this a “big week for the receivers,” so Thornton should be getting opportunities in practice to earn a bigger role.
Demario Douglas is another sneaky candidate to get more looks outside the numbers, where we saw him used for the first time last week.
Demario Douglas ran real routes from a wide, isolated split for the first time last week, and Mac checked into a Yankee concept where he was the first read over the middle
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 31, 2023
He may not have the size to survive on the perimeter consistently, but Douglas could replace the big-play ability Bourne brought to the perimeter with the help of stacks and bunches.
Douglas is the most obvious answer to where most of Bourne’s targets will be funneled. All you need is the eye test to know they were the only consistent downfield and YAC threats on New England’s roster, but the similarities in their efficiency have been downright spooky.
The undersized Douglas is more shifty after the catch, while Bourne tends to win with physicality, but both excel at making defenders miss and can fly with the football. Douglas’ three deep receptions also make him the only Patriot outside of Bourne (one) with a catch on a 20+-air-yard throw. But Douglas can’t do it all on his own, and it will likely take a group effort behind him to replace Bourne’s production.
Kayshon Boutte is one of the few Patriots with the potential to replicate Bourne’s after-catch explosiveness.
Different jersey, same DUDE pic.twitter.com/A8qA9hhcTO
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) August 20, 2023
Boutte thrived on slant routes in college, which have been one of Bourne’s specialties. They also offer exceptional contact balance and ball skills when at the top of their games. I thought Boutte had the potential to be one of the steals of the draft this spring, particularly at the Z spot, where he could benefit from motion and advantageous alignments. The former LSU tiger has been a healthy scratch since catching zero of four sideline targets in Week 1, so it may be a stretch to expect many downfield targets. But Bourne received a healthy dose of schemed targets, where Boutte could provide a similar spark.
Bill Belichick hinted last week that Boutte might not be doing enough in practice to earn a role on the gameday, saying, “It’s a very competitive situation… Guys who perform the best play the most. The guys that don’t have to perform better.” But the head coach also acknowledged this morning that the door is open for receivers to step up, saying, “[Kendrick Bourne’s injury] gives other players opportunities. We’ll see what they do with them.”
If Boutte can seize his chance and become the second receiver from New England’s rookie crop to become an impact player, it would bring much-needed juice to the offense and provide a glimpse at what the team has in the cupboard for 2024. As we’ve seen with Douglas on a weekly basis, there will be growing pains, but the Patriots can’t afford to be picky at 2-6 if their veteran wideouts continue to underperform.
The same can be said for Thornton. The former 2nd-rounder struggles against tight coverage but offers speed and quickness the team currently lacks at the Z spot. He could be a great fit on the double-moves that led to a pair of Bourne scores in Week 1.
Kendrick Bourne caught touchdowns vs James Bradberry and Darius Slay tonight, two of the best corners in the league
Blew by Slay on this out-n-up for his second score and did a great job getting both feet down pic.twitter.com/gHwJpRPERk
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 11, 2023
Jalen Reagor might be locked in at X with DeVante Parker in concussion protocol for the next week or two. And like Thornton, he’s been quiet for New England with one catch on three targets and has trouble with physicality. But unlocking Reagor’s downfield ability against soft coverage and exploiting his dynamic athleticism on designed targets could help chip away at the impact of Bourne’s loss.