Curran: Assessing the state of New England's wide receiver position


After 2020, “up” was really the only direction the Patriots wide receiver group could go.

And in 2021, they did. With a better passer at the controls in Mac Jones, Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne combined for 138 catches, 1,466 yards and seven touchdowns.

Curran's position evaluations: QBRB | TEOL

In 2020, Meyers and Damiere Byrd were the top wideouts and combined for 106 catches, 1,333 yard and one touchdown. But better doesn’t mean "good." The Patriots have decisions to make and work to do at the position to not just make life easier for Jones but to also complement the skills Bourne and Meyers bring.

It’s very easy to pinpoint what the group -- and the offense -- is missing. A slot receiver. Meyers plays the spot and produces but he’s not a sudden, get-open-in-a-phone-booth player who can cut on a dime and leave five cents change. Option routes. Low-crossers. Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, etc., were the kind of players the Patriots profited from.

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OBJ would have been a great on-field fit. Hunter Renfrow, Deebo Samuel, Cole Beasley, Braxton Berrios, etc., are receivers passed on or moved on from who would satisfy what they need. Forget all the "No. 1 receiver" noise, if Jones gets a slot guy he can rely on, the whole group gets better.

Bright spots

Meyers is one of the best Patriots stories of the past decade. Undrafted in 2019. Earned a spot with offseason and training camp production. Weathered the Tom Brady storm as a rookie. Wedged himself into the lineup with Cam Newton and led the team in 2020 with 59-729-0. Built on that with Jones and has been the Patriots best pass-catcher the past two years even though he’s far from a prototype.

Perry: Burrow's trajectory gives hope of what Jones could become

There’s nothing to dislike about Bourne either. Long, fast, quick, tough and versatile enough to carry the ball too (12 for 125 on reverses, jet sweeps, etc), Bourne brings a speed element Meyers doesn’t which is reflected in his YPC (14.5 to Meyers’ 10.4).

Both players are part of the future at the position.

The disappointments

N’Keal Harry. Sigh. He did have a good camp. I swear he did. And he did have that nice grab against the Colts.

Which was his best catch since he made that nice one against the Rams in 2020. But three years in, you shouldn’t be summoning fewer than five positive plays made by a first-round pick. Especially when we all can think of 10 awful ones. He had 12 catches for 184 yards this year. He’s got 57-598-4 in three years. He started 18 games. An outrageous miss.

Nelson Agholor. He was by no means a disaster in 2021 with 37 catches for 473 with three touchdowns. And his retreat from a career year with the Raiders in 2020 (48-896-8) was no shock. He’s been an up-and-down player is whole career.

But he’s basically a more highly-paid Phillip Dorsett. The cash layout and average-ish production doesn’t add up. Agholor at half the price is not a disappointment. At the current price -- and the expected role as potent field-stretcher who makes secondaries sweat -- he is.

Contract status

Agholor signed a two-year, $22 million deal with $16 million guaranteed last March. It was an eyebrow-raising deal at the time but the lack of wideouts, Agholor’s 2020 production and the need to sweeten the pot to get players to sign on to catch passes from Cam Newton forced the Patriots hand.

For this year, Agholor’s base salary is $9 million. His cap hit is $15 million. Both numbers are way too rich based on his projected production. The Patriots can release Agholor and save $5 million on the cap but they’ll carry $10 million in dead money. He’s a prime restructure candidate. We’ll see how that goes.

Bourne signed a three-year, $15 million deal so he’s in the middle season of it. His base is $3.5 million and his cap hit will be $6.4 million. His 2023 numbers are similar. Then he’s a free agent. He’s 26 and the kind of player the Patriots should want to keep around so an extension might make sense.

Meyers is a restricted free agent. That means the Patriots can tender him an offer and any team that wants to sign him would have to give the Patriots draft pick compensation. The Patriots would also have a chance to match any offer and retain Meyers.

A second-round tender is projected to be $3.9 million. A first-round tender is expected to be $5.5 million. If the Patriots merely want right of first refusal, meaning the right to match, it’s projected at $2.4 million. Meyers needs to be kept but -- as with Bourne -- the extension will likely be forthcoming.

Roster locks for 2022

Meyers and Bourne aren’t going anywhere. With Agholor, the team is taking a $10M on the cap hit to have him not play?

That hurts, so I could see the pain of that making them consider strongly keeping him. But that $9M salary -- more than Meyers and Bourne combined -- is offensive. Gunner Olszewski, listed as a wideout but primarily a special teamer because he doesn’t catch passes at an NFL level, is also a restricted free agent. Expect the Patriots to retain him.

And Kristian Wilkerson, who finished the season with four catches for 42 yards -- all coming in one game against Jacksonville -- will also get a longer look in ’22.

Offseason priority (scale 1-5): 5

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