AFC East Reporter
There might not be a position more complicated for Bill Belichick than wideout.
The New England Patriots coach and general manager has had his successes, most recently with undrafted slot receiver Jakobi Meyers. Before that, the Patriots converted Julian Edelman from quarterback to receiver. Belichick also reclaimed Randy Moss’ career, elevated Wes Welker to new heights and made Deion Branch into the best version of himself on the football field.
That’s nothing to scoff at, but by now you’ve probably heard all about those successes.
The attention has shifted, however, to the mess of wideouts who have failed under Belichick. Because for the most part, New England has been a place where receivers’ careers take downturns — or where careers fail to ignite altogether. Belichick seems to have all the talent in the world at getting the most out of players, particularly defensive castoffs. But with receivers, the Patriots often have the opposite effect.
Just look at the team’s recent acquisitions at the position.
N’Keal Harry? He’s one of the biggest busts in team history after New England drafted him in the first round in 2019.
Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor? Well, Bourne had one good season but between the two of them, their combined four seasons in New England were massive disappointments, particularly for Agholor, who signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the team.
DeVante Parker? The jury is still out on the receiver after the team gave up a third-round pick in exchange for Parker and a fifth-rounder. But in his first season, Parker put up just 31 catches, 539 yards and three touchdowns. Ho-hum.
Maybe that’s part of why New England couldn’t land receiver DeAndre Hopkins, whom the Patriots pursued and felt they had a realistic shot at landing. But he decided to play for the Tennessee Titans.
“It’s like hundreds of other players we deal with over the course of the year,” Belichick said Tuesday when asked about how he felt about Hopkins going elsewhere. “We have so many roster spots, some sign here, some sign somewhere else. When there’s an agreement, there’s an agreement. When there’s not, there’s 31 other teams.”
Bottom line? Hopkins could have helped the Patriots, but they couldn’t coax him with their contract offer. And it’s fair to wonder if the team’s uncertainty on offense might have also been a factor in deterring the 31-year-old receiver at a crucial crossroads in his career.
Why DeAndre Hopkins chose Titans over Patriots
Certainly, things are likely to be more stable under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien in 2023 than they were under Matt Patricia in 2022. But even going back to Josh McDaniels, New England’s offense was middle of the pack with Mac Jones at quarterback. Maybe Hopkins saw a clearer path to money and production in Tennessee.
That brings us to 2022 second-round pick Tyquan Thornton and 2023 free-agent signee JuJu Smith-Schuster. New England drafted Thornton in the second round in 2022 and inked Smith-Schuster for $8 million and one year this offseason.
The pressure is on Thornton to upend Belichick’s run of poor drafting at the wideout position. And for Smith-Schuster, he must prove the Patriots coach shrewd for letting Meyers leave for the Las Vegas Raiders. Meyers was the team’s most reliable option in the passing game. If Smith-Schuster can’t be that — and perhaps more — then New England’s passing attack will suffer.
“[Smith-Schuster is] a very versatile guy, and I think that’s what you see in that wide receiver room,” O’Brien said in April. “He’s definitely been a good addition so far, just with the meeting room and his experience in the things that he’s done, especially most recently in Kansas City. So it’s been good to work with him.”
It will be on O’Brien to make sure all goes well for these two receivers, in particular.
[Related: Can Tyquan Thornton reverse Patriots’ run of draft misses on receivers?]
[Related: Why did Patriots replace Jakobi Meyers with JuJu Smith-Schuster?]
It would be a nice bonus for New England if Bourne can get his act together after falling out of favor with the team in 2022. And it would be helpful if Parker has a good season, particularly after the team extended his contract. But O’Brien needs to help Thornton and Smith-Schuster have success. Thornton possesses rare speed and explosiveness that New England has lacked. Smith-Schuster is a key player in the team’s foundation: the quick passing game.
It’s important to acknowledge that O’Brien’s offense might actually emphasize tight ends Mike Gesicki and Hunter Henry. But that won’t disqualify the team from needing its receivers to elevate to a level that we haven’t really seen since Edelman. New England’s passing attack has looked predictable and efficient in recent years — even in 2021, when the Patriots were competent under McDaniels … and even in 2019, when they still had Tom Brady.
[Related: Patriots’ tight ends taking center stage for Mac Jones, Bill O’Brien]
O’Brien has a history of helping receivers achieve star status — or at least he’s helped them put up career-best numbers. Hopkins, of course, emerged in O’Brien’s offense in Houston. O’Brien also helped Brandin Cooks put up 1,000 yards, and Will Fuller put together the best seasons of his career under O’Brien. Even Andre Johnson, at age 33 and rapidly declining physically in 2014, posted 936 receiving yards in O’Brien’s Texans offense.
At Alabama, O’Brien had two different setups for the passing attack. In 2021, he had John Metchie and Jameson Williams, who each posted more than 1,000 receiving yards. But in 2022, a season coach Nick Saban said was a rebuilding year, O’Brien got everyone involved, with four receivers logging 25 or more catches.
New England needs to get more out of its receivers. That’s just the nature of the NFL. And in recent years, the Patriots haven’t cultivated enough talent at the position. In fact, they have seemingly squashed up-and-coming or emerging talents (Agholor, Bourne). This needs to be the year when that narrative begins to shift. The AFC East is enormously competitive. The AFC is stacked.
The Patriots may have an elite defense, but that alone won’t get them into playoff position. O’Brien’s job is essentially to keep the Patriots relevant by way of their offense. And that’ll have to start with a good year from a receiver position that has, for many years, underachieved.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.
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