Patriots

Robert Kraft hints at Patriots’ plans to jumpstart Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith

"We're making changes to take advantage of what they do best."

Patriots Robert Kraft
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and New England Patriots running back Damien Harris. AP Photo/Doug Murray
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Much has been made of Patriots owner Robert Kraft speaking out recently about the state of the franchise and, as some see it, needling Bill Belichick’s lack of success in the draft before last season as part of the reason the team hasn’t won a playoff game in three years.

“I’m happy that I think we had a great draft last year. It made up for what happened the previous four years or so,” Kraft said in late March. “I look forward to hopefully having a great draft this year. That’s the only way you can build your team for the long term and consistently that you’ll have a chance of winning, is having a good draft.”

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Take it how you will — though it’s probably not a sign that Belichick’s job is in danger — but Kraft certainly wants to see his team contend even as the conference grows stronger outside of Foxborough.

New England’s chances might revolve around young quarterback Mac Jones and what the offense puts around him. Heading into the draft, the biggest addition on the offensive side of the ball so far has been big wide receiver DeVante Parker, who came over via trade from Miami. Still, expect more pass-catchers to come in the 2022 NFL Draft — whether or not they come in the first round.

But The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reports Kraft wants to see improvement from a couple of high-priced acquisitions from last year’s free-agent binge as well.

“While discussing Mac Jones’s year-two progression, Kraft pointed at some of the Patriots’ free agents from a year ago who need to step up. Tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receiver Nelson Agholor are two prominent examples in that regard,” Howe wrote.

“Kraft noted, ‘We’re making changes to take advantage of what they do best.’ It was a subtle way to acknowledge that the overhauled offensive coaching staff is putting an emphasis on extracting the most out of those players.”

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Though anything is possible, it doesn’t sound for now as if the Patriots intend to trade Agholor, who mustered just 473 yards on 37 catches last season but is already working on his chemistry with Jones this offseason.

Agholor should see more time in the slot with Parker in the folder. The speedy receiver helped turn his career around in Philadelphia back in 2017 by taking on a heavy slot role and played inside on a third of his snaps during his breakout 2020, according to PFF. But the Patriots used him in the slot on under 10 percent of his snaps last year, and his production on the outside never materialized.

Smith, on the other hand, could be in line for a more multi-faceted role than he had last year, especially with New England no longer using fullbacks. But as NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran suggests, Smith’s usage would likely look more like Aaron Hernandez’s “U/move” tight end role than Jakob Johnson’s run-game bulldozer task. In any case, the Patriots’ tight end should not be one of the least-targeted players at his position for a second straight year.

Regarding Kraft’s comments about Agholor and Smith, Howe notes the owner’s interest in those players might be more than just musings from the Patriots’ biggest fan.

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“It reminded me of last spring when Kraft hinted at the way the Patriots adjusted their draft strategy. He was candid and optimistic at the time of those comments, and those adjustments ultimately paid major dividends with a solid class,” Howe said.

“So if Kraft has seen something with the coaching strategy this offseason — to the point where he’s happy enough to point it out — it’s absolutely something worth monitoring when the Patriots get rolling during organized team activities.”

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