Phil Perry

Pop Douglas can help Belichick reaffirm a long-held coaching philosophy

The dynamic rookie has earned a significant role in New England's offense.

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FOXBORO -- Mac Jones waved his arms. He screamed. And most amateur lip-readers would tell you there was probably an expletive mixed in.

On a third-down play at the end of the first half against the Bills last weekend, wide receiver Demario Douglas ran a return route directly into a defender, instead of seeing the cornerback and cutting his route short to sit down in open space. Jones wanted to throw to Douglas, but the rookie's route-running miscue forced Jones to stop himself mid-throw. The ball slipped out of his hands and hit Rhamondre Stevenson in the back. Incomplete.

Jones tore into his young wideout as the punt team came onto the field. He was hot.

But he didn't freeze out Douglas or ignore him for the remainder of the game. In fact, he did the opposite, throwing to Douglas with the game on the line on more than one occasion.

Douglas caught two passes for 25 yards in the fourth quarter against Buffalo, and he was targeted twice on the Patriots' game-winning drive. On the first target, Jones threw to Douglas despite him being blanketed by a Bills defensive back. Douglas fought through a pass-interference penalty, caught the pass, and nearly squirmed into the end zone. On the very next play, Jones had Douglas open along the back end line for the game-winner, but he overthrew him.

"I’ve known of him since I was little," Jones said of Douglas, who hails from the Jacksonville area. "I know that he’s always fought an uphill battle. He always talks about his size, right? He’s always going to keep fighting, and I know that about him.

"I can be hard on him and try to raise that standard because I know where he comes from. I know how hard he works, and he’s going to bring it every week."

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The Patriots (2-5) may need Douglas to be a significant weekly contributor if they're going to salvage their season. He's already proven to be their most dynamic and productive -- on a per-snap basis, at least -- option in the Patriots passing game.

Among qualifying receivers, Douglas is 20th in the NFL in yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus, ranking him slightly ahead of star receivers like Cincinnati's Ja'Marr Chase, Miami's Jaylen Waddle, Las Vegas' Davante Adams, San Francisco's Deebo Samuel and Seattle's DK Metcalf. His 2.24 yards-per-route-run figure places him slightly behind players like Houston's rookie Tank Dell, Chargers veteran Keenan Allen, Dallas' CeeDee Lamb and Detroit's Amon Ra St. Brown.

Douglas' work with the ball in his hands -- despite his 5-foot-8, 185-pound frame -- has been among the more impressive aspects of his game. Not only did he return a punt for 25 yards in Week 7, but he made a tackler miss on the first snap of the game against Buffalo, taking a short throw for a nine-yard gain. He also created an explosive 20-yard run on an end-around when he made a corner miss in space in the third quarter.

Per Sports Info Solutions, among receivers, Douglas has the fourth-best forced-missed-tackle percentage in the league, behind only Samuel, Kansas City's Kadarius Toney and Houston's Nico Collins. And his yards-after-catch per reception figure (6.1) is the 11th-best mark in the league for wideouts.

Furthermore, Douglas does his best work where his quarterback has thrived this season.

Douglas has played almost 87 percent of his snaps as a pro in the slot, often operating in the middle of the field the way undersized Patriots pass-catchers of the past have so effectively. Per SIS, Jones has diced up defenses in the short-to-intermediate middle of the field. He's sixth among quarterbacks when it comes to his rating when attacking the middle of the field between 0-20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He's ninth in yards per attempt targeting that area, seventh in WAR (yes, it's not just a baseball stat) and 10th in positive expected points added percentage.

The middle of the field isn't just where Jones is at his best, either. It's where the Patriots offense has been most effective for the last decade.

In eight of the last 10 seasons, the top yards-per-route-run receiver on the team has played the majority of his snaps in the slot, according to PFF. And in 2014, their top receiver in that category was Julian Edelman, who played in the slot 41.4 percent of the time before becoming more of an interior player as his career wore on.

Now that the new Patriots offense under Bill O'Brien looks a bit more like the old Patriots offense (coached by O'Brien for five years from 2007-2011), it makes sense that their most effective player is an explosive slot guy.

The Patriots added pieces like Mike Gesicki and JuJu Smith-Schuster this offseason to help Jones and O'Brien take their shots toward the middle of opposing defenses. But it's Douglas who is their best option. Smith-Schuster could be returning from a concussion this week in Miami -- he's no longer on the injury report -- but the numbers would suggest that his snaps shouldn't come at the expense of Douglas' playing time.

Douglas' yards-per-route-run mark is about 150 percent better than Smith-Schuster's (0.89). His yards-after-catch-per-reception figure is about 150 percent better than Smith-Schuster's (2.4). Smith-Schuster ranks 96th and 95th in those metrics, respectively.

If the Patriots want to play Smith-Schuster -- who has spent 52.4 percent of his snaps this year in the slot -- maybe they can work him in on the outside, where he spent a large chunk of his playing time a season ago in Kansas City. Getting him back inside because of the contract he received this offseason, if it robs Douglas of more work,
would be a mistake.

Bill Belichick has long said, when it comes to who receives playing time and who doesn't, your path to Foxboro is non-consequential.

“I tell the team that I don’t care how you got here,” Belichick said before his team's second Super Bowl matchup against the Giants. “It’s what you do when you get here. It doesn’t matter if you were drafted in the second round, the fifth round or not drafted at all. Ten years in the league [or] one year in the league. We are going to play the best players.”

When it comes to Douglas -- a sixth-rounder out of Liberty and a dynamic receiver on a team starved for offensive dynamism -- this would seem to be as good a time as any to implement that line of thinking.

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