A glance at the stat sheet shows that Patriots’ Damiere Byrd is one of the least productive wide receivers in the league relative to his substantial playing time.
The Pats wideout is currently 28th out of the 32 wide receivers that lead their team in snaps in PFF’s yards per route run metric (1.27), with 17 catches for 217 yards in five games.
However, a closer examination of Byrd’s tape this season tells a much different story.
The film shows a receiver using speed, route-running, and scheme to get open consistently; all traits Patriots fans keep clamoring for from the team’s weapons.
Unfortunately, circumstances completely out of Byrd’s control led to several missed big plays, or even touchdowns, in the first five games of the season.
Byrd, due to no fault of his own, missed out on at least four touchdowns and 150-plus receiving yards, including two touchdowns last week.
Here’s what Byrd’s current stat-line would look like if the Patriots were able to get him the ball in those situations: 21 catches, 367 yards (73.4 per game), four touchdowns. And here’s how that projects in a 16-game season: 67.2 catches, 1,174 yards, 12.8 touchdowns.
Those numbers are lofty, especially for a player with 488 career yards in four seasons, but even hitting on one or two of the plays would change narratives drastically.
“That’s just football. Some plays are there, and they just don’t work out. That just goes back to as a team everybody playing their assignment and getting the job done,” Byrd told CLNS Media.
“I can run a great route, but if something else goes wrong, that doesn’t matter. Other players can make great plays, and if I don’t do the right thing, then the play might not work out.”
The Patriots’ struggles developing wide receivers in recent years are well documented, but Byrd, a footnote free-agent signing this offseason, is bucking those trends.
“Damiere’s a smart kid that has good route-running ability and has done a good job picking up our offense. He’s been productive,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said this week.
Now on his third team, the speedster says that an unconventional offseason was actually the key to him catching on so quickly in one of the most challenging offenses to learn in the NFL.
Although sometimes exaggerated, New England’s offense is an advanced passing system where receivers convert their routes based on the coverage and defenders’ leverage.
One example would be their famous HOSS Y Juke, where Julian Edelman runs the “juke” route based on if its man or zone and then the defenders’ leverage. In HOSS, Byrd would be one of the outside receivers running a “stop” option. His route converts to either a stop route versus off-coverage or fade against press coverage.
Despite having no in-person offseason program, an abbreviated training camp, and no preseason, Byrd is having no issues picking up the offense. The issue is all 11 players executing well enough for a positive play, which is even harder for new teammates, especially without practice.
Newton has the most difficult job here, with the quarterback needing to read out plays a certain way based on the coverage and then the optionality of receivers routes before the pass rush gets home. The timing was off, it’s really that simple. Given the circumstances for Newton, that’s totally understandable.
As for Byrd, he took the quarantine during the offseason due to the pandemic as an opportunity to learn the Patriots playbook.
“I think what helped me out was just being away from, believe it or not, the building when everything first started,” Byrd said. “I was really able to take my time and go as slow as I needed to learn the playbook and just diving in every day and just take heed and listen to what Josh [McDaniels] and Mick [Lombardi] and Coach [Belichick] had to say.”
The first thing that stands out with Byrd is his speed. After all, he ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash at South Carolina’s Pro Day in 2015, which was on grass, a slower surface.
Byrd was brought in to replace offseason departure Phillip Dorsett, who played the field-stretching role in the offense for three seasons, with Byrd hopefully offering some more production.
One of the main ways the Patriots are getting Byrd involved is by sequencing together stop options along the sideline with vertical double moves mixed in there.
Here, Byrd is getting tons of cushion from Broncos cornerback Michael Ojemudia, so he stops down. He does a nice job of accelerating off the line to close down that space and gets into Ojemudia’s body (the pocket) at the top of the route. Once he sets it up with speed, Byrd stops down in two quick steps to create separation, and it’s a 19-yard gain.
“As far as those routes, I think it’s just playing to my ability. Knowing what threats that I have. And that’s obviously my speed and getting the DBs running, getting them worried about the deep ball and things like that,” Byrd explained.
After stopping down multiple times against Ojemudia, the Patriots dialed up a stutter-and-go late in the game to take a shot. The Pats wideout makes his stem look the same as the stop route, sinks his hips and fires his feet to simulate a break, and then accelerates upfield once Ojemudia takes the cheese. Unfortunately, Newton’s throw is short. If Newton leads Byrd into the end zone, that’s a chance at six.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also realizes that Byrd is his best big-play weapon and is scheming up ways to allow Byrd to use his speed.
The audio breakdown above documents how McDaniels uses Julian Edelman as a decoy to get Byrd favorable leverage on a skinny post. Byrd is open for what would’ve likely been a walk-in touchdown, but the ball doesn’t get there.
Here’s another example of McDaniels’s scheming and Byrd’s speed. This time, Edelman motions into a bunch formation with Byrd and Izzo. New England utilizes a switch release to mess with the coverage at the snap, and Byrd is wide-open on a post route in the middle of the field, but Newton is sacked (listen above).
Along with plays where he’s in the primary read of the progression, Byrd was open deep on two other occasions when he was clearing out coverage.
This time, the Patriots are running a “sail” concept to Stidham’s left. The route combination puts Byrd on a go route (clear out), Edelman on a corner route, and N’Keal Harry releases into the flat to flood the left sideline.
The outside corner at the bottom of the screen gets caught peeking at Edelman’s corner route, and Byrd runs right by him. However, Stidham gets to it late, likely because his first read in the progression is Edelman, not Byrd, and the throw is well short. Like the double-move earlier, if Stidham leads Byrd into the end zone, that’s another likely touchdown.
Normally, I wouldn’t knock Newton for missing Byrd on this play. His route is designed to clear out coverage and likely isn’t in his primary ready. But Cam himself pointed it out. The Patriots run their high-low crossers concept with Byrd clearing out the coverage once again on a post pattern.
The post-safety in the middle of the field vacates his responsibility to converge on Edelman’s crosser before Newton releases the ball, and it leaves Byrd by his lonesome at around the 30-yard line. Newton probably should’ve thrown to Harry on the shallow crosser, but instead forces it to Edelman and its incomplete.
“I just remember we had another play-action pass, and I missed Byrd, and I saw it on the replay, and he came back with the big eyes. I was like, man, I know I missed you,” Newton said.
The Patriots’ pass-catchers took a lot of grief after the loss to the Broncos for failing to create separation. Based on how defenses are playing them, opponents don’t fear New England’s wideouts much either, with the Pats seeing the fourth-most snaps of single-high coverage in the league.
By playing single-high structures, defenses can rotate extra defenders into the box in run support or help defenders on routes between the numbers to Edelman. The vulnerability is one-on-one matchups on the outside, but if you don’t fear their outside receivers, who cares? The defense will live with passes to Byrd and second-year wide receiver N’Keal Harry.
However, Byrd is making the most of his one-on-one opportunities and just isn’t getting a chance to succeed. Plus, the term “separation” needs context each play.
“There’s a lot that goes into creating separation,” McDaniels said. “The first thing is what the scheme is and what we’re asking the players to do. There’s the release, there’s the stem of the route, there’s the top of the route, and there’s the finish of the play. The combination of all those things being done properly combined with what we’re actually doing, we need to do a lot of those things right.”
On a macro-level, the Patriots could use more weapons who could, in theory, execute those schemes better. Maybe that would also put Byrd in the right place in the pecking order with more favorable matchups each week.
But Byrd is threatening defenses and should have several big-plays; don’t blame him for things out of his control. With improved timing and execution, those plays have a better chance of succeeding.
Patriots fans are clamoring for more speed and playmaking at the receiver position, and Byrd is giving them what they want even if its not making the stat sheet yet.