Before the Patriots made their final selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, head coach Bill Belichick took a moment to recognize longtime football research director Ernie Adams.
Adams, one of the pillars of New England’s front office during their unprecedented run of success, retired from his work with the Patriots after 21 consecutive seasons in Foxboro.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) May 3, 2021
“Ernie, I just want to thank you. As your final draft, in the final round, as we go to the final pick, it’s yours,” Belichick gestured to Adams.
The name that Adams pulled off the Patriots’ draft board was Tre Nixon, a wide receiver from the University of Central Florida who Belichick’s right-hand man took with the 242nd selection.
A lot was made out of the fact that the wide receiver needy Pats hadn’t selected a receiver earlier on in the draft, going a different direction with their first seven selections.
However, Nixon is not your typical seventh-rounder as a former four-star recruit with 46 DI offers who was on his way to a breakout season with the Knights when a broken collarbone derailed his redshirt senior season.
In their first game of the 2020 season against Georgia Tech, Nixon had 94 yards and two touchdowns in the first half before leaving the game.
On a vertical route down the right sideline, Nixon adjusted back to an underthrown pass to haul in a 25-yard touchdown, but Tech cornerback Zamari Wilson landed hard on Nixon. The new Pats wideout sat out the rest of the game and would only appear in four games in 2020.
“During fall camp, he was probably the best player on our team, and we had five guys drafted,” UCF wide receivers coach Darrell Wyatt told CLNS Media.
“Tre was on his way to a monster season. I thought Tre would have been an All-American. He had 90 plus yards in the first half with five minutes left in the first half in the first game of the season. I thought he was on his way to a 12 to 1500-yard season.”
Wyatt, who has coached UCF’s wide receivers since the 2018 season, would know a thing or two about producing NFL talent at the position. Under his watch, UCF had four wide receivers drafted, including two in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the program has a rich history at the position.
Before Wyatt, and Nixon, there was six-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall and former first-round pick Breshad Perriman; the Knights know how to recruit and develop receivers.
The UCF wide receivers coach is also very close to the Pats’ seventh-round pick, saying he speaks to Nixon multiple times a week.
“He’s extremely happy and excited. He’s got his nose in that playbook.”
On the field, the nature of UCF’s offense both helped and hurt in showcasing Nixon’s skill set.
The Knights run a vertical-based passing offense that relies on wide splits to create one-on-one matchups for their wide receivers on the outside.
As a result, Nixon, who played mainly on the outside, faced plenty of press-man coverage and was forced to learn how to defeat press to be successful. In terms of projecting success at the NFL level, Nixon’s experience and production against man coverage bode well.
“We were a vertical passing team that played with extreme splits. So we created mismatches and created one on ones. And because of that, most teams would line up and play us in man,” Wyatt explained.
“That’s one of the reasons the kids were so versed with press coverage because that’s what we faced all the time because the easiest way to try to match up with the pace in the formations is just a lot of press coverage. If you tried to be too complicated with your zones and assignments, ultimately, you are not going to be allowed to line up. The ball would be snapped. So we face a lot of press coverage.”
“He’s [Nixon] got really, really quick feet against press coverage, and he can get to top speed really fast. The kids got great, great feet with really, really good vertical Speed,” Wyatt continued.
Wyatt first recognized Nixon’s NFL potential in a standout performance against Stanford during the 2019 season. Nixon finished that season with 49 catches for 830 yards and seven touchdowns.
“He beat press coverage, and he was running full speed from right to left going toward the goal post. There was a ball delivered over his outside shoulder to the right. He made an unbelievable, NFL-type adjustment to get the touchdown. And that’s when I said this kid has got a future in the NFL; he’s going to be a Sunday player.”
Although UCF’s offense allowed him to use his quick feet at the line and speed, Nixon ran a vertical route tree that didn’t give him many chances to highlight his abilities as a route runner.
Along with a 4.44-second 40-yard dash, Nixon ran a 6.81-second in the three-cone drill at his Pro Day, giving him an excellent athlete profile with a three-cone time in the 73rd percentile.
“I think he’s going to be a crafty route runner,” Wyatt said. “Our system, which has been successful for us in terms of yards and points, probably didn’t highlight all of the things that Tre can do. Tre is a really, really crafty route runner. He has really quick feet. He’s got great stop and start. He’s a vertical guy. But I think in an NFL offense, the complete route tree, there’s not a route that he cannot, in my opinion, he will not master.”
With untapped potential as an underneath route-runner and highlights of vertical speed, Nixon has a skill set that should make Patriots fans excited about Adams’s selection.
Plus, as Wyatt detailed, Nixon has all the makings of a New England Patriot with a high football IQ and a pro-ready work ethic that stood out to his coach from the day they met.
“He has conducted himself like a pro football player since the first day I was around him. He’s the guy who’s going to be on time. He’s going to be early. He’s going to stay late. He’s going to be in front of the jug machine when everybody else is going in.”
“I think they’re getting their kind of guy. The ultimate professional. A guy who is really football smart. And a guy that loves the game and details of the game,” Wyatt told me.
The Patriots’ issues with drafting wide receivers are well documented, and recently, we were reminded of those failures with 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry’s issues in his first two seasons.
Although expectations for late-round picks are low, NFL.com projected before the draft that Nixon would go in the fifth round, noting he could’ve gone even earlier if he wasn’t injured.
Nixon also brings competitive fire and a skillset that Pats need: a speedy outside receiver with the quickness to defeat press coverage and the route-running ability to create separation at the next level.
” I think he’s going to be able to help pretty quickly,” Wyatt said.
As Belichick noted in his sendoff, Adams hit once already on a seventh-round receiver with David Givens in the 2002 NFL Draft, and the Pats have better luck at the position on day three.
Based on what those around him say, Adams might’ve given Belichick a parting gift in Nixon.