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In the week after their supposed interest in free agent Odell Beckham Jr. was reported as public knowledge, another piece of speculation created more conversation about a big name potentially joining the Patriots. That chatter came courtesy of Deion Branch, who suggested fellow former New England Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman might have the “itch” to return if the Pats were to coax him out of retirement.
Beckham’s now a Ram, and there’s no inclination that Edelman is planning a late-season comeback. But the insinuation underlying both cases is consistent with the belief that the Patriots could use an upgrade in their receiving corps – a belief that’s being gradually debunked on a weekly basis.
Thursday night in Atlanta, three days after Beckham’s nondescript debut with Los Angeles, the Patriots’ receivers were a collective key in their 25-0 defeat of the Falcons. The quartet of Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and N’Keal Harry each made multiple catches, with 15 grabs on 17 targets, a touchdown, and 135 yards between them.
Are those eye-popping numbers? No. But, remember, this is a Patriots offense that is based around its running game, loves to throw to its backs as they leak out of the backfield, and spent big money on the best two tight ends on the free-agent market last spring.
On paper, the Patriots’ group of receivers are the offensive afterthought, yet their output against the Falcons on Thursday came quickly on the heels of a cumulative 11 catches, 194 yards, and two scores against the Browns on Sunday. All of a sudden they’re poised to put up numbers the likes of which haven’t been seen in Foxborough since the talk going into Thanksgiving week was centered around whether the locals could complete their undefeated season.
The (mostly) magical tour de force of 2007 was the last time the Patriots finished with three receivers each totaling at least 40 catches and 500 receiving yards. Others (2013, 2015, and 2018) have come close, but have not quite hit that level of productive depth.
These Patriots have the benefit of an extra game, but for the purposes of these projections, that has been eliminated. Based on a 16-game schedule, Meyers would be on a pace for 79 catches and 759 yards. Bourne would be on track for 54 catches and 817 yards. Agholor, meanwhile, would be slotted for 42 grabs and 576 yards through the air.
The names in that trio aren’t exactly Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donta Stallworth — the last trio of receivers to each go for more than 40 and 500 in a season. And the ball dominance of guys like Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, plus the number of passes thrown to backs like James White and Shane Vereen, certainly affected the feeding trough from which Pats receivers have been feasting for the past decade or so.
But it’s not as though the present Pats receivers are racking up numbers because they’re heavily featured, either. The reasons the Pats are scoring 27.6 points per game — more than the Chiefs, mind you — starts with their reliance on Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and the ground game. In the red zone, and with increasing frequency, Hunter Henry is a primary target.
Yet these receivers are getting done the job they’re asked to do, and leaving little to be desired — outside of a few things that historically haven’t been features of Josh McDaniels’ offensive approach, and don’t exactly fit into the club’s personality or skill set.
In that respect, this group of receivers is in a variety of ways a good representative of their position coach, the Patriots’ legend Troy Brown. He only had one 1,000-yard season, and only three years in which he snagged more than 43 balls, but he earned the red jacket bestowed upon Patriots Hall of Famers because he was consistently reliable, knew how to get open, delivered when it mattered, and had the ability to explode for big plays, too.
That’s come to collectively define his mentees, too, over the months since he expressed his faith in them during the early days of training camp.
“I can’t say enough about all the guys I have in my group this year. It is a great room; fantastic people,” Brown said back in August. “I love this room, fellas.”
Meyers has been beloved in New England ever since he played his way onto the team as an undrafted rookie. After emerging as the team’s leading receiver last year, he’s validated that rank by continuing his growth this year. With the extra game he’s on track to top 80 receptions and 800 yards, and maybe even more impressively is the factor he’s become on third down.
He has emerged as the closest thing Mac Jones has to a security blanket, and accordingly, it’s Meyers where the quarterback looks when he’s faced with third down with an intermediate distance to the sticks.
There’s a trust in the receiver that was nicely exemplified in the middle of the third quarter against the Falcons. On third-and-5, old friend Duron Harmon burst through the middle on a blitz from his safety spot, and came at Jones unblocked. The quarterback retreated to buy a bit of time, but just before Harmon reached him, Jones slung a pass to his left. When the ball floated out of the quarterback’s hand, Meyers was just starting his break toward the outside.
Jones not only trusted Meyers to be there, but to run the route with just enough depth to make the first-down marker, and, oh yeah, to make a fingertip catch just before the ball hit the ground. Meyers executed it successfully, as he often does, and the drive continued. That was the 14th time this season that Meyers picked up a first down with a third-down catch, which entered Sunday’s action tied with Chargers’ Pro Bowler Keenan Allen for the fifth-most in the NFL. Just behind him on the leaderboard were the likes of Stefon Diggs, Travis Kelce, and Cooper Kupp.
Agholor has been another chain mover, with 20 of his 29 catches accounting for first downs this season. In Atlanta, he led the way with five catches, and he scored his third touchdown of the season when he broke free in a busted coverage and turned on the afterburners en route to paydirt.
That speed is what makes Agholor the logical choice to be the Pats’ top big-play threat, but so far that distinction has gone to the other guy New England signed in its early free-agent frenzy, and that’s Bourne. The former 49er is on pace for more than 800 receiving yards, with a big chunk of his gains coming once the ball is in his hands. Bourne is averaging 6.9 yards after the catch, which rates in the top 20 league-wide, and behind only five other receivers. He’s in the same range as the Bucs’ Chris Godwin and the Bengals’ JaMarr Chase, with renowned playmakers like Davante Adams (4.7 yards) and Tyreek Hill (4.0 yards) significantly behind him.
Adding to Bourne’s impressive and efficient numbers is that he’s caught 78.7 percent of the passes thrown his way. A pair of Arizona Cardinals — Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore — are the only receivers who’ve made at least 20 receptions this season and have a higher catch rate. Factor in the flashes he’s shown in picking up 78 yards on six rushing attempts, as well, and Bourne has become the playmaker the Pats thought they were signing in Jonnu Smith.
Even Harry has started to find his role. He’s only added eight catches and 117 yards to the group’s totals, but at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he’s been tremendous as a blocker, especially just off the line. In goal-line situations, he’s dominated his defender, almost like an extra lineman, and he’s used that to earn increased opportunities all over the field. He’s played at least a third of New England’s snaps in each of the past six games and participated in 61 of 133 possible plays (46 percent) over the five-day stretch against the Browns and Falcons. That was more action than Bourne saw over the two tilts.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels acknowledged Harry’s contributions this week, and said that development and growth will create opportunities for him to contribute in other ways moving forward.
“I think all of our guys give great effort,” McDaniels said. “We ask a lot of our receivers in general, in that regard, and they’ve all shown that they’re tough enough and willing to help the team in any way they can.”
They’ve helped win five in a row. They’ve helped the young quarterback to come along. And they’ve helped everyone to see that this Patriots receiving corps doesn’t need to bring in a big name to be a factor in the team’s return to contention.
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