Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is a believer in his in-house options at the wide receiver position.
Despite ranking dead-last in Next Gen’s average yards of separation metric last season, Belichick didn’t make any significant moves to improve the position in the draft, free agency, or via trade this offseason. Instead, he double-downed on the “very good” group already on the roster.
“I’m sure all our young players will improve in year two,” Belichick said after the draft. “Got a first-round pick on N’Keal [Harry] last year, second-round pick on [Mohamed] Sanu. Obviously have Julian [Edelman] and a number of other young players. I think that will be a very good group.”
Reading between the lines: a full season with improving route-running technique leads to a breakout for N’Keal Harry in year two. A healthy Mohamed Sanu plays better than he did down the stretch in 2019. Free-agent addition Damiere Byrd is an upgrade over Phillip Dorsett, and Jakobi Meyers continues to develop with Julian Edelman leading the way.
Some might call that wishful thinking, but nobody knows his roster better than Belichick, and only a few of those things need to go right for the Pats.
New England also didn’t have the cap space to make a splash move without compromising other areas of the roster. They kicked the tires on trades for DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs, but it wasn’t realistic, so now they’re counting on their guys to make the leap.
Below, we’ll discuss how holdovers from last season can make the leap and how a few newcomers could surprise in 2020:
OUTSIDE RECEIVERS (X)
The name of the game for Harry in year two is separation. Harry is working with trainers Rischad Whitfield and Justin Allen to improve his foot speed, explosiveness, and route-running technique. His physical tools shine in catch-and-run opportunities as well as contested catches. But he needs to create more separation to get the ball in his hands down the field to generate explosive plays and expand his production beyond touches behind the line of scrimmage, which starts with improving his route releases. Harry could play more in the slot in year two, and it might help him escape press coverage on the outside. But with his size and several inside receivers on the roster, developing as a true “X” is best. Read more on Harry’s work with Whitfield and Allen this offseason here.
The Patriots believe they stole Byrd from the Cardinals, finding a hidden gem in Arizona that will be an upgrade over Phillip Dorsett. After the signing, my film review explains that, on top of 4.28-speed, Byrd has the hip fluidity to make sharp cuts to create separation on horizontal breaks and pick up yards after the catch. Dorsett was more of a linear athlete that won on vertical routes or at the intermediate level on comebacks and deep outs playing off his speed and didn’t offer much in YAC mode. Byrd will hopefully expand the Dorsett role moving forward into a three-level threat that can win with the ball in his hands. Plus, the speedy wideout has some experience returning both kickoffs and punts in his career. Coaches and players in Arizona were surprised to see the Cardinals let Byrd walk without a fight.
Adeboyejo is on his third team entering his fourth NFL season after signing with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent following the 2017 draft. He has a great combination of size (6-foot-3), speed (4.42), and agility (6.73-second three-cone), especially for his size, but continues to work on the finer details of the position. Adeboyejo struggles against physical corners and needs to use his size down the field with more consistency. He signed with the Pats practice squad in November and then signed a futures contract after the season. Adeboyejo has tons of physical upside testing in the 92nd percentile back in 2017. But it seems unlikely that he’ll ever put it together. Still, he’s a useful scout-team player due to his measurables.
INSIDE RECEIVERS (Z/SLOT)
#Patriots film: Edelman route running time. Angled stem at inside arm to get the corner to move over, hop step and swim move to get back on Johnson's outside shoulder, get past the CB and explode out of the break. Filthy. pic.twitter.com/HHQFWnU9FF
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 23, 2019
The squirrel is back for a 12th NFL season at age 34 with no signs of slowing down. Edelman’s role in the offense won’t change, and he’s as shifty and feisty as ever, but he’s the new face of the franchise after Tom Brady’s departure. Edelman’s energy and tenacity on the practice field are contagious, and younger teammates say he’s very willing to share his knowledge of the game. As Brady said in the past, receivers like Edelman are easy to throw to for any quarterback since he creates separation early and often in his routes. But we’ll see how his chemistry is with Jarrett Stidham while Edelman also shoulders the responsibility of being the top dog in Foxboro.
Watched all of Sanu's targets in 2019. Savvy, excellent feel vs zone, attacks the ball in the air, understands the details. Great fit.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 22, 2019
The Patriots don’t think they got the best of Sanu down the stretch last season after a nasty high-ankle sprain limited him after his first three games in New England. Sanu only sat out one week before returning and playing through the injury, but he wasn’t the same guy, losing most of his change of direction abilities. When healthy, Sanu can get open against NFL cornerbacks and was someone that Whitfield heaped praise on during my interview with the Footwork King. Whitfield said, “Sanu has what N’Keal needs to have. Sanu knows how to get separation. He’s very quick at the line.” Both the team and Sanu believe there’s much better football coming from the veteran in year two with the Patriots.
McDaniels pointed out this morning how Jakobi Meyers "tried to the hide the ball from the defender" on this catch. Also a good example of not drifting on the over route. Two things that McDaniels said the young receivers could learn from Julian Edelman. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/nmhTxt57re
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 11, 2019
Meyers’ rookie training camp and preseason performance gave off classic Patriots UDFA vibes. The 23-year-old is a fast learner with excellent route-running detail, which helps him create separation despite limited athleticism. Meyers’s footwork at the line helps him shake free of defensive backs, he has excellent setups into his breaks, and enough wiggle at the top of his routes to run away from defenders. But his ceiling might be capped due to his speed limitations as corners don’t fear anything over the top, and he takes extra time to get into his routes. Meyers can be a useful slot option for the Pats by developing his current skill set even further in year two. Still, getting into his routes faster and with more acceleration to make defensive backs uncomfortable is a must.
In his first media availability as a Patriot, Lee told us that he’s fully healthy after a 2018 ACL tear derailed his career in Jacksonville. The former second-round pick got off to a slow start with the Jaguars but put up back-to-back seasons of 700 or more receiving yards in 2016 and 2017. Lee isn’t an elite separator, but he’s a smooth technician out of the slot that wins with body-positioning and strong hands at the catch point. There’s a little young Sanu to his game, and a return to his 2016-17 form would be a pleasant surprise.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) August 24, 2019
Easily the best story of training camp last season, I’ll admit that I wasn’t a big Gunner believer. On punt returners, he’s fantastic, playing with no fear and a willingness to get upfield with an instant burst rather than dancing around defenders for little gain. The best punt returners get north-south instantly, and Olszewski has the potential to be great in that role. As a receiver, Olszewski’s routes lack juice and technical savvy, although he did improve in the details as the summer wore on. My hesitation with Gunner is labeling him the next Edelman or Amendola because those two are unique, and he’s not as dynamic in his routes as either of those guys were early in their careers. Olszewski’s role as the primary punt returner might be in jeopardy with top pick Kyle Dugger on the roster and undrafted rookies Jeff Thomas, J.J. Taylor, and Sean Riley, who all have experience as returners. He’ll need to scrap his way onto the 53-man roster once again.
Ross spent most of the season on the Patriots’ practice squad then signed a futures contract after the season. At only 5-foot-9, Ross is a typical shifty slot receiver who has kickoff return experience during his college days at Colorado. Ross will most likely be competing for a practice squad and scout-team role once again this season.
#Patriots UDFA WR Jeff Thomas has to keep his head on straight but his explosiveness is electric. Stacks multiple moves together on his release while still gaining ground. Sudden feet to get inside. CB tries to stay square but you better speed. CB is way too late opening up. pic.twitter.com/Gvj8kcdpT0
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 30, 2020
Thomas is the early-favorite to extend the Patriots’ undrafted rookie streak to a 17th season based on talent alone. He’s explosive off the line with plenty of vertical speed, shifty and loose hips to change directions, elusiveness as a ball carrier, and provides horizontal and vertical stretch to the offense. But his lengthy track record of off-field slipups led to a third-round talent going undrafted in April. Thomas was suspended multiple times at Miami, including a dismissal from the team in 2018, due to rules violations. If the Patriots can get him to buy in, the sky’s the limit, but prior history suggests that Thomas will get everyone excited just to disappoint them with an off-field transgression.
#Patriots UDFA WR Will Hastings running the corner-post route for two touchdowns from Jarrett Stidham back in 2017. Push inside vertical in stem, sell break on corner route with head/hips, easy transition at the top to the post. Smoked Grant Delpit on that first one. pic.twitter.com/nbJ1lnlfrO
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 11, 2020
The Auburn product reunites with Jarrett Stidham to see if they can recreate their chemistry from the 2017 season. In that season, Hastings averaged over 20 yards per catch hauling in 26 passes for 525 yards and four touchdowns with Stidham at quarterback. Hastings is a typical undersized slot with the usual shiftiness but offers decent field-stretching abilities as well. Hastings’s vertical transitions on post-corner routes were smooth on his college tape along with his ability to accumulate yards underneath the defense. He sat out the entire 2018 season due to an ACL tear and didn’t have the same success in 2019 without Stidham. Plus, outside of an onside kick specialist, Hastings didn’t play much on special teams for the Tigers and didn’t return kicks. If he’s going to make the Patriots roster, he’ll need to learn ways to contribute in the kicking game.
Between Kyle Dugger, J.J. Taylor, and Syracuse WR Sean Riley the #Patriots added some quality punt returners with their rookie class. Riley is a converted High School running back that's excellent as a ball carrier. Play speed, contact balance, vision in the open field. pic.twitter.com/Aq2ACVQlWs
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 5, 2020
Riley is another undersized slot that the Pats picked up after the draft with impressive 2018 tape. The Syracuse product is an explosive athlete that was a big-play threat whenever he touched the ball, including as a returner. Riley’s 5-foot-8, 178-pound frame might not hold up against the physical brand of man coverage he’ll face at the pro level. But he might be able to keep guys from riding him down the field with his sudden footwork at the line of scrimmage and instant acceleration. If Riley can keep defenders off of him, he has the juice to be an NFL receiver.
Zuber is another player whose best chance to make the roster is as a returner. In 2018, Zuber led the Big 12 in punt returner average (17.8) and returned 33 kickoffs for an average of 15.8 yards. As a receiver, Zuber’s production was pretty underwhelming, but he was more of a factor during his time at Kansas State before transferring to Mississippi State. Zuber shows good physicality and hand strength at the top of his routes, along with some lateral agility. But he’ll need to make the roster as a return specialist.