Curran: Analyzing Parker's on-field and financial fit with Pats


Ever seen a flock of seagulls descend on a dropped French Fry? That’s what the football-loving portion of New England looked like when news broke Saturday that the Patriots were trading for DeVante Parker.

News -- any news at all -- of a recognizable player at a ballhandling position was all people really wanted. A sign of life. Even though the Patriots dominated free agency in 2021 in a way we will never see again, a feeling of profound sadness descended over the past two weeks.

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Every other fanbase was getting new toys. New England wasn’t. The vibe was the same one you get after opening all your big presents Christmas Eve, leaving nothing to open Christmas morning but poorly-wrapped packages of socks.

And now Parker shows up on the stoop five days after Christmas! It came! It really came! Let’s run him inside, tear open the package and see how he works.

First things first, you can project Parker to play the role N’Keal Harry has been unable to for three seasons -- that of a big, physical, dependable receiver who plays on the outside and has a good catch radius.

Parker’s 6-foot-3, 219-pounds and ran a 4.47 40 coming out of Louisville in 2015. Harry is the same height, 10 pounds heavier and ran a 4.53 coming out of Arizona State in 2019. We don’t need to belabor Harry’s lack of production. Suffice to say, the team wasted a first-round pick on him. So they’ll acknowledge that and replace Harry with a player who’s had demonstrated success. Which is their custom and -- as Bill Belichick explained when I asked him about it in April 2019 -- the safer route.

"It’s always easier to evaluate NFL players than it is to evaluate college players," Belichick said in his pre-draft media availability in 2019 just before drafting Harry. "We get a guy from another team, we’re going to see him play against teams we play, we just haven’t seen him play in our system, but we’ve certainly seen him match up against ... comparable players in comparable schemes.

"When you’re talking about college players you’re talking about projecting a guy from whatever his college scheme is into a totally different scheme and that’s imperfect," Belichick added. "It’s much harder from college to the NFL than from the NFL to the NFL."

The Patriots have seen plenty of Parker while dealing with him in the AFC East. In 12 meetings in which Miami went 6-6, Parker caught 42 balls on 71 targets averaging 14.21 YPC. Parker’s signature day vs. New England came in Week 17 of 2019 when he and Ryan Fitzpatrick feasted on the Patriots' ballyhooed defense and Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore.

Parker was a beast playing with the ultra-aggressive Fitzpatrick. He set career highs in catches (72), yards (1,202), YPC (16.7), touchdowns (9) and average depth of target (14 yards). The past two years Parker’s numbers dipped while missing nine of 33 games and catching passes from the still-developing Tua Tagovailoa. But the Patriots reasonably believe he’s got enough gas left at 29 and can fill a need on the outside.

Updated list of Patriots' 2022 NFL Draft picks after DeVante Parker trade

Which brings us to Nelson Agholor, who also is an outside receiver. Does Parker’s presence make him obsolete? Not in the least.

According to Pro Football Focus breakdowns, Agholor played 691 of his 757 snaps last year on the outside. He was deployed to the left 467 times.

Parker played 465 of his 539 snaps outside. He was split to the left 230 times, to the right 235 times. Parker lined up in the slot 74 times, Agholor 65 despite playing more than 200 more snaps.

So Parker was deployed in a more varied way in 2021 -- albeit in a different system. More importantly, even though they both play outside, their skillsets are totally different. Agholor is a touch faster (4.42 at Combine) and is 6-foot, 198. He’s a quicker-than-fast, would-be technician who can produce downfield (though his hands can be sketchy).

He had a very modest 2021 with 37 catches in 15 games, but that wasn’t wholly unexpected in Foxboro. They knew Agholor had limitations but, because the wide receiver corps had disintegrated by the end of 2020, they had to spend heavy to restock it. So they did, giving Agholor a two-year, $22M deal. Last year, the very useful valuation chart had Agholor playing like a $4M receiver, not an $11M receiver.

While it might tempt ever-thrifty Belichick to try ducking the final season of Agholor’s deal, that would be tough. Agholor’s making $9M in base salary and carrying a $14.9M cap hit. The Patriots save the salary money if they release Agholor but they’ll still carry $10M in dead money on the cap. The Patriots could trade Agholor and just carry $5M in dead cap. But then they need to find a willing trade partner who’ll pick up a $9M salary for an OK wideout.

The two-year deal was smart for the Patriots given the position misses like Harry put them in. It’s an overpay, sure, but they had to do it. And they’ll be out of it in just two seasons.

Parker, meanwhile, comes with a $5.6M base and a $6M cap hit each of the next two years. So between the two, the Patriots will pay $14.6M in salary this year. Shrug.

Meanwhile, if the team were to pick up Harry’s fifth-year option in 2023, it would cost a projected $12.45M (don’t worry they won’t). Parker’s going to cost $5.6M in salary.

The upshot is this: DeVante Parker is a good add. He’ll be better than Harry. He can co-exist with Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers. His addition means the team is less desperate at wideout and can avoid stepping on a rake in the draft. Is it enough of a pacifier for Patriots fans wondering where all the additions are?

If it isn’t remind yourself of this: the Patriots are spending $38M in cap space at wideout this year (third in the NFL). They are spending $31M at tight end, first in the NFL by a wide margin. You already opened all your presents. 

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