Patriots head coach Bill Belichick searched for years to find consistently productive wide receiver play.
New England enjoyed Julian Edelman’s final years, 17 games with Josh Gordon, a breakout 2020 season from Jakobi Meyers, and made the most out of Phillip Dorsett and Damiere Byrd.
However, Belichick’s failed attempts to acquire high-end receiver talent are well-documented, from 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry to the one-week Antonio Brown fiasco. There were also smaller swing-and-misses, such as trading a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu in 2019.
The disappointing long and winding road has led us here, with Belichick signing free-agent wide receivers Nelson Agholor (2 years, $22 million) and Kendrick Bourne (3 years, $15 million) in March.
After bottoming out at the position a year ago, the Pats are closer to league-average in production by wide receivers this season thanks to the additions of Agholor and Bourne.
Although Agholor hasn’t produced significantly for your fantasy team, the Pats’ two free-agent additions along with Meyers are gelling nicely into their roles in Josh McDaniels’ offense.
From this perspective, the Patriots’ win over the Titans in Week 12 was the best all-around performance we’ve seen New England’s wide receiver group in over two seasons.
The Pats’ trio combined for 13 catches, 179 yards, and two touchdowns in the box score. Plus, the high degree of difficulty stood out on multiple occasions.
On Mac Jones’s longest completion of the day, a 38-yard strike to Meyers, the undrafted product made a terrific late adjustment, showing excellent concentration to secure the catch as Titans safety Kevin Byard flew in his sightline on an attempted pass breakup.
Meyers also added to his impressive season with two more receptions against man coverage, bringing his total on the year to 25 catches against man coverage (fourth-most in NFL).
Earlier, Bourne, who is tied for first among all receivers in contested catch rate (88.9%), elevated over Byard in the corner of the end zone to posterize the Titans’ safety for a touchdown.
Then, Bourne made another spectacular play after the catch thanks to an excellent block by Meyers and a stiff-arm to run for a 41-yard touchdown. Bourne is on-pace for a career season (17-game pace: 60 catches, 882 yards, seven TDs), and is now fourth in yards after catch over expected, per NextGen Stats (+2.9 YAC per catch).
Lastly, Agholor is doing his job from the “X” spot by stretching the field and creating opportunities with his speed, even if it isn’t always showing up on the stat sheet.
Here, Agholor’s vertical push forces the boundary corner to stay over the top of his route, opening a void at the intermediate level for Jakobi Meyers’ corner route on a sail concept.
In this play, the Pats ran a low mesh concept with Meyers setting a pick on Agholor’s man, and Agholor likely scores if Mac threw him the ball.
The Patriots may not have a superstar wide receiver that is a household name around the league. But they have a competitive group who knows their roles, competes hard in the running game, and is starting to make plays beyond the easy ones in the system.
During New England’s six-game winning streak, the Patriots lead the entire NFL in expected points added per drop-back (0.31) and are fifth in drop-back success rate (51.7%).
Although there might not be one nightmare matchup in the group, three players can make a play on any given Sunday, and the spread around philosophy is working.
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag from Week 12 of the NFL season:
If Dugger does miss Monday, who do you see trying to fill that sort of role? Or what overall adjustments does the defense make to mitigate his loss?
— Ryan Harriman (@rsharriman31) December 2, 2021
We discussed how the Patriots could replace Dugger in this week’s game plan. First of all, it’s unlikely that Dugger will be cleared from COVID protocols in the same week that he tested positive. Second, this is a major blow to the Pats’ defense, specifically in this matchup. Ideally, the Pats would defend the Bills out of three-safety nickel and dime personnel using their interchangeable safeties to rotate the coverage shell after the snap. Without Dugger, it takes a physical presence out of the box against the run and a great zone coverage player in stressful spots (post, split-field, deep hole, seam/hook). Adrian Phillips already has a role in the game plan, as does Myles Bryant, so it comes down to a reserve DB (Joejuan Williams, Shaun Wade) or activating linebacker Jamie Collins. Having too many linebackers on the field in this matchup worries me. Dugger is a tough player to lose this week.
Is Myles Bryant limiting Pats ability to play Man? We saw Pats lose a Superbowl due to one or two secondary liabilities in 2017. He seems tough, physical and good at tackling but he seemed lost against Gage on 3rd downs vs Atlanta, and was beat easily by Chester Rogers vs Ten/
— Ekshesh Bekele (@eksheshbek) December 2, 2021
Well, I wouldn’t pin the transition to zone coverage all on Bryant. Bryant is better in zone, Mills is better in zone, the linebackers and safeties are better in zone, and now they have a pass rush that allows them to maintain a seven-man zone structure. In my mind, the transition to more zone coverage fits the entire defense and masks the weaknesses of multiple players.
Plus, the Pats have three interceptions to zero touchdowns in cover-one man during their six-game winning streak and are sixth-best in expected points added per target (-0.23). Fewer exposures in man yield better results, with New England ranking 15th in cover-one drop-backs since Week 7. The Pats were first in cover-one drop-backs in the first six weeks. I don’t see a zone approach as a problem. Plenty of Super Bowl winners were zone-heavy (Tampa Bay was last year).
how do you think mac will do in the snow?
— YaBoi (@BigPhiliiip) December 2, 2021
One of the most over-blown storylines as the weather turns later in the season. Just because we haven’t seen Mac Jones play in snow doesn’t mean he can’t. Plus, the Pats practice in inclement weather and will prepare him for the conditions. I don’t expect the weather to be a factor for Mac. If he plays poorly in a snow game, I’m sure the defense on the other side and the Pats’ execution issues will be the main reason, but people will pin it on the weather because it sounds juicer, “Oh, Belichick picked a quarterback that can’t play in the snow. Did he overlook that angle???” Please.
Is it time to start talking about Judon and JC as legitimate defensive player of the year candidates?
— H C (@YorkSports12) December 2, 2021
Similar to Stephon Gilmore in 2019, two of the best players on one of the NFL’s best defenses will get consideration for DPOY. Currently, our friends at BetOnline have Judon (+650) with the third-best odds to take home the award while Jackson (+2500) is eighth and Cleveland’s Myles Garrett (+125) is the favorite. Judon is a legitimate candidate this year. He will need two marquee games against the Bills and Colts in primetime plus the Pats need to keep winning. Some voters will factor in his impact on the Pats’ culture from a locker room perspective. In my mind, Judon giving the Patriots defense its swagger back might be his biggest contribution.
Was the Run Defense we saw from the Patriots last Sunday who they are or an outlier on the season?
— Ken McCartney (@KenMcCartney) December 2, 2021
I’m at about a six out of ten with the run defense on the panic meter. There were some lighter boxes and deeper linebacker alignments that the Pats played to limit Tennessee in the passing game once they built a lead. Plus, the execution against outside zone was much better in past weeks. I’m up to a “six” because of the situation at nose tackle. We’ve been on this train for a while, but it bears repeating: Davon Godchaux isn’t a nose tackle in this system. Godchaux doesn’t have the size or length to occupy blockers and clog the middle like a traditional nose. He is far more effective as a 3-4 end. Carl Davis is better on the nose, but he had a rough game against Titans center Ben Jones. Without a stout nose tackle, the Pats are getting turned out of the A-Gaps and putting a lot of stress on the second level. It’s an area of weakness that will need addressing next offseason.
Which AFC team do u see as our biggest obstacle to a super bowl run? We usually handle the chiefs pretty well but that's with Jon Jones covering Tyreek. What are your thoughts?
— Hank Boi (@HankBoi2) December 2, 2021
There are four other teams in the AFC that are legit in my mind: Baltimore, Buffalo, Kansas City, and a healthy Titans team. However, the biggest threat is still the Chiefs. Even with their perceived struggles, Kansas City is sixth in DVOA on offense and has improved defensively throughout the season. I view the Chiefs as a team that doesn’t necessarily care about regular-season wins at this point. They know their talent level and how to win in the postseason. Once they are in the dance, nobody will want to play Mahomes, especially if KC gets hot at the right time. They’re the toughest matchup in the conference.
Is Red zone offense something you expect the Patriots to continue to work on this week and into the bye week. If so do we start to see more usage of Jonnu like we did last week?
— Corey E (@Cmoney52) December 2, 2021
Even during their six-game winning streak, the red zone is an area that needs to improve. Since Week 7, the Pats are still only 13th in red zone touchdown efficiency (24th on the season). Although McDaniels is back in our good graces, the red zone is an area where he could improve. The early-down runs, especially on second down when they fail on first down, are killers. For example, the Pats ran the ball twice from the TEN 8 last week. On first down, they gained two yards, then ran on second-and-goal from the six for another two yards. At that point, you’re in third-and-four from the low red zone, which is a difficult area to pass the ball. Along with play-calling, I would agree that Jonnu needs more touches in the red zone. He had nine red-zone touchdowns for Tennessee last season and just one this year. Although you can always point to execution, better play-calling and weapons utilization would go a long way.
Are we ever gonna see N’keal get more looks in the passing game? He’s been a great and physical run blocker and I think he deserves a shot at some more opportunities in the pass game.
— max naggar (@wakymax) December 2, 2021
I’m done trying to make N’Keal happen in the passing game. His contributions as a run blocker are nice, and he’s creating more opportunities with his route running. Still, he’s clearly the fourth guy on the depth chart, and it’ll probably stay that way. It’s hard to envision an efficient role for him in the passing game. Sure, the Pats could throw him a jump ball in the red zone or on a vertical route. But there are better ways to move the ball. The good news is that he has found a way to contribute as a run-blocking specialist who will get a target or two when the Pats dial-up play-action. That is the extent of his role right now.
Bentley ended up in PFF's team of the week. Yet you tweeted during the game about this being one of his worst performances. Did your film review on him show anything different?
— Ranz Meyer (@Mettwurscht12) December 2, 2021
Before I give my take on this, Bentley’s had a good year and significantly improved his play speed. However, I’m confused by PFF’s grading here.
They gave Bentley an 89.9 overall grade for the game despite a 54.3 run defense grade on 33 snaps. He received a 97.7 grade on four pass-rush snaps because of his strip-sack (his only pressure), and he wasn’t targeted in coverage (18 snaps). So his entire grade rises to near-elite levels due to one play? Shouldn’t the 33 run-defense snaps hold more weight? Odd.
Bentley was fine against the run when tasked with taking on leading fullback blocks, but he was struggling to get off climbing offensive linemen on outside zone. He got blocked ten yards past the line on D’Onta Foreman’s 30-yard run. It wasn’t a good day against the run for him, which was his primary role in the game.
How do you rate mills? You weren't sold on him preseason.
— keith butler (@keithbutler84) December 2, 2021
Speaking to those around the team, Mills was exactly what the Patriots were hoping for when they signed him in the offseason. A heady football player with excellent versatility, work ethic, and energy. Belichick called him the “defensive Kendrick Bourne” in terms of his energy and toughness. Although he’s not ideal for high-end CB2 man coverage matchups, Mills can do it all at a respectable level. Deep third in cover-three, flat defender in cover-two, man coverage with help, and so on. Mills brings a professional approach and fits in well. He’s a perfect player to pair with Belichick, who manages his role.