Phil Perry

Mailbag: Why Parker and Hopkins aren't as redundant as you might think

Phil Perry explains why DeVante Parker and DeAndre Hopkins can coexist, ponders ways to upgrade the tackle position, and more.

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Before we take off for Fourth of July celebrations, let's empty a hefty mailbag loaded with a mix of current-event reaction as well as some classic offseason (and by definition off-the-beaten-path) queries. Thanks as always to everyone who chipped in. Let's hit it.

I can tell you, Ryan, there's a belief at One Patriot Place that "peace of mind" had something to do with this one. And it makes sense. If you're Parker, you can't help but be impacted by the DeAndre Hopkins free-agent visit to Gillette Stadium. He's a huge name. He has a skill set similar to Parker's. You couldn't blame Parker for wondering about his standing with the team if they're looking to add Hopkins. Therefore a new deal that gives him the opportunity to earn more money should make Parker feel more secure in his roster spot. Avoiding potential landmines in the locker room -- particularly after last year -- without overextending is probably smart business on Bill Belichick's end.

On the team's end, Parker does provide real value when on the field. He's a contested-catch expert and provides Mac Jones a down-the-field target in whom Jones can feel confident when facing one-on-one coverage. This new deal doesn't break the bank. It provides Parker some security. Everyone's happy.

You can also project out a bit here and see the logic in it. If the team isn't able to sign Hopkins, Parker doesn't feel like an afterthought if the Patriots -- who will have lost some leverage with Parker if Hopkins goes elsewhere -- come to him during training camp and offer him a contract. If they are able to land Hopkins, Parker knows he still has a role. And he should.

Parker is purely an outside receiver. Only three qualifying wideouts in the league played a higher percentage of their plays outside than Parker last season (91.4 percent). Hopkins played primarily outside but he still played over 27 percent of his snaps in the slot last season for Arizona. Hopkins could play the "Z" role in New England with Parker manning the "X" spot and JuJu Smith-Schuster functioning as the team's primary slot.

Then there's this: Parker's average depth of target was 16.8 yards down the field last season; Hopkins came in at 10.7. Although they're both contested-catch options -- more than half of Parker (52.6 percent) and Hopkins' (52.4) targets were contested last season -- they are different receivers in terms of where they do their damage.

That's the drawback of this new contract with Parker, in my opinion. If the team does land Hopkins, then to me it looks like Kendrick Bourne would be the odd man out. That's too bad because I think his 800-yard season in 2021 proved he has high-end ability. Additionally, he provides the locker room with the kind of upbeat attitude that I think carries significant value. Particularly at a place where, it's no secret, it can be a high-stress environment.

But look at the rest of the receiver room. Parker just re-signed. JuJu Smith-Schuster was just added in free agency. Those guys aren't going anywhere. Ditto for Tyquan Thornton, who's on a rookie contract and gives the group a speed element it wouldn't have without him. Bourne looks like he'd be the fifth in line in terms of job security if Hopkins signed.

Keeping Bourne, however, would provide the team some much-needed security for a unit that is not without its injury concerns. Parker has played a full season once in his career. Smith-Schuster missed 12 games two seasons ago. Thornton missed the first month of his rookie season with an injury. Hopkins has been durable for the majority of his career but missed seven games two seasons ago, dealt with a performance-enhancing drug suspension last season, and he just turned 31.

So even though we're wondering who the odd man out is -- especially considering Smith-Schuster has already been limited this offseason by injury -- there's a chance Belichick figures out how to make it work with all five guys.

We just touched on some of Hopkins' alignment versatility above, and how Hopkins was used in Houston -- especially when he was at his best between 2017-2019 -- might not be all that relevant because he's not necessarily the same athlete he was then.

That said, Hopkins' game has really never been speed. He's always had excellent hands and body control. Why not, then, take a peek at how he was deployed by Bill O'Brien with the Texans during that dominant stretch, when he was a First-Team All-Pro three times?

His usage out of the slot actually skyrocketed from 16 percent to 37 percent between 2017 and 2019. In 2019, only six receivers in the NFL saw more targets on short-to-intermediate routes. Per Sports Info Solutions, he had 92 targets on flat routes, slants, comebacks, curls, outs, whip routes and digs. Makes sense then that his average depth of target (10.8) wasn't all that different than it was this past season. He was particularly busy on slants (32 targets, third in the NFL) and effective on those, leading the NFL in the WAR metric on slants calculated by SIS.

Only two players caught a higher percentage of on-target throws on those shorter routes than Hopkins (97.2) in 2019. His 7.0 yards per target on those plays was tied with Julian Edelman, and his 105.3 rating on those types of passes was ninth out of 46 qualifying receivers. No surprise here, but Hopkins was among the league leaders in end-zone targets in 2019 (13, fourth).

While Hopkins was primarily a short-to-intermediate option that year, he was enough of a target magnet that he also saw his share of deep work. He ranked 11th in the NFL when adding up his targets on corners, posts, fades, seams and double-moves (30). He had a rating of 119.3 on those routes and averaged 12.0 yards per target on those plays. He actually led the league in post-route targets (12) and was 10th in the NFL in EPA per target on those plays.

To sum it up, the last time Hopkins and O'Brien worked together, Hopkins saw a bunch of targets on slants, posts and in the red zone. He was also a sure-handed option in the short-to-intermediate range of the field and played more in the slot than you might remember. If he does make his way to New England, it'll be fascinating to see what their reunion means for the Patriots offense.

That's not an insane prediction on your part, Sam. I spoke to an AFC defensive assistant recently who game-planned against the Patriots last season. Understanding O'Brien's tendencies and the strengths of Mac Jones, this particular coach believed Gesicki would get the ball a "[expletive] ton." Based on what we saw in the spring -- with Gesicki and Hunter Henry playing a lot together early in team periods -- that's certainly in the realm of possibility. 

As far as Demario Douglas goes, he's one of the most exciting rookies on the team because of his explosive athleticism. But let's see if he's able to make the roster before projecting a role for him. 

Lots of concern here. I get it. 

At this stage, there are no viable tackle options just sitting on the free-agent market waiting to be signed. Taylor Lewan and Jason Peters are big names but have dealt with injuries and shouldn't be expected to be saviors for what could be a worrisome picture at that position for the Patriots. 

Someone from the group of tackles in Cincinnati becoming available would give Belichick another serviceable option. But even if Jonah Williams or La'el Collins can be had, they're going to cost you. Capable tackles aren't just given away. Ain't enough of 'em. I doubt the Patriots are going to part with a real pick and/or player in order to upgrade at this stage. But if things look ugly when the pads come on at training camp, they may be left with little choice.

A couple of younger options that would interest me, if the opportunity presented itself? 

Jack Driscoll from the Eagles has shown some promise as a pass-protector. He's a backup in Philadelphia but was a Prototypical Patriot as a smart, versatile and athletic lineman out of Auburn back in 2020. Howie Roseman and Belichick are no strangers to doing business with one another.

Then there's what's happening in Tennessee, which desperately needed tackle help and drafted three in the spring (that's if they see top pick Peter Skoronski as a tackle). The Patriots will have joint practices against the Titans this summer. If they get the sense that either Jaelyn Duncan (one of the most gifted tackles in this year's draft but with off-field concerns that dropped him to the sixth round) or John Ojukwu (undrafted but performed well at the Shrine Bowl) can play, it might make sense for them to try to deal for one. Not sure Tennessee would keep them all. 

But that's where we are at that position... Talking about sixth-rounders and undrafted players who haven't even played a snap in the league yet.

Belichick's best bet might be to relent on his preferred spot for Mike Onwenu and put the impending free agent at tackle the way he did in 2021, which helped save that season when they were struggling up front.

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