Tom E. Curran

Patriots 2024 roster reset: Underwhelming WR room needs a boost

The Patriots desperately need to get more explosive at receiver.

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Editor's Note: With the beginning of NFL free agency looming on March 13, our Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran is resetting each Patriots position by assessing their 2023 performance, laying out their 2024 contract status and ranking their offseason priority on a scale of 1 to 5.

First up was quarterback. Next on the docket: wide receiver.

Did anyone really think that the wideout complement of DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton and rookies DeMario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte would be semi-potent in 2023?

I am sheepishly raising my hand. Sheepishly. Whether it was the protection, the quarterback, the scheme, the coaching or all of the above, the aforementioned Patriots wide receivers combined for 163 catches. Eighty-six of those came from Bourne and Douglas. The wideouts as a group scored five touchdowns. So there’s a lot to plow through.

Bright spots from 2023

As noted, it was a lean year for the wideouts. Bright spots … hmmm.

Bourne exceeding his entire 16-game output from 2022 in the season’s first eight games (37 catches for 406 yards and four TDs compared to 35-434-1 last season) deserves mention. His brightness dimmed significantly when he blew out his knee and went to IR.

Douglas also qualified. He ripped it up in training camp, ripped it up in preseason, really ripped it up in joint practices against the Packers and commenced ripping it up in the season opener with four catches for 40 yards on 33 snaps.

Then he fumbled in the second game of the year, got benched after eight snaps and got sent to a three-game detention in which he played 17, 18 and seven snaps, respectively. The Patriots blew the dust off him eventually and he became the team’s most potent wideout through the end of the season.

Overall, Douglas averaged 6.9 yards after catch per reception (YAC) which was third in the NFL among wideouts with more than 40 catches. He trailed only Deebo Samuel (8.8) and Rashee Rice (8.3). He’s a true building block for the offense.

Disappointments from 2023

The sads started raining down in March when the Patriots decided Jakobi Meyers was too rich for their blood and opted to sign Smith-Schuster for about the same dough.

JuJu had 29 catches for 260 yards and a touchdown in 11 games. He missed the last four and was inactive for the team’s most stirring win of the year against Buffalo. A pass that glanced off his hands against the Commanders turned into a game-sealing pick.

Meyers? He finished the season with 71-807-8, which is about the same production he always delivered in New England.

Jakobi Meyers joined Phil Perry in Las Vegas on "The Next Pats Podcast" to talk about how Mac Jones struggled during the last two seasons in Foxboro.

Add the production of JuJu and the team’s de facto No. 1 receiver, DeVante Parker, together and it still doesn’t add up to Meyers' stats. Parker went 33-394-0 in 11 games. He had a nut-crushing drop late in a loss to the Raiders then acted like it wasn’t a pass that every No. 1 wideout in the league would have been sick about dropping.

In two years as the Patriots’ X receiver, he’s got 64 catches for 933 yards and three touchdowns. That’s just not what you’re looking for.

Neither was Mike Gesicki. The hybrid TE/WR had 29-244-2. He was supposed to be a red zone complement. The 2023 Patriots didn’t get there very often. Hence, more of what you’re not looking for.

Speaking of things you’re not looking for, intriguing rookie Kayshon Boutte, who had a really nice camp and caught everything he was supposed to and barely missed workouts, got arrested last month. The Patriots gambled the sixth-round pick could have upside. Bad bet. He had two catches in five games and is now facing charges related to illegal online betting while at LSU, including betting on his own games.

And Thornton, a second-rounder in 2022, amassed 13 catches for 91 yards in another injury-marred season. He’s got 35 catches in two years.

Meanwhile, DeAndre Hopkins – a receiver the Patriots courted but decided they didn’t want because of dough and practice habits – had 75 cathes for 1,057 yards with seven touchdowns for the Titans and played every game. He signed for two years and $26 million. His 2023 cap hit was $4.5 million.

By way of comparison, the Patriots paid Nelson Agholor every penny of a two-year, $22 million contract that ended after the ’22 season.

It’s mind-blowing. But wait, there’s still more.

Contract statuses for 2024

Bourne’s contract expired. He would like to return and the injury could keep his price down but the Patriots can’t offer him less than Smith-Schuster because Bourne is a better player.

JuJu, 28, is a medium-sized ticket item. His base salary is $7 million and his cap hit is $10.2 million. Releasing him would mean a cap hit of $12.2 million. His contract runs through 2025.

Parker’s deal also runs through ’25. His base is $3.2 million each of the next two years and his cap hits are $6.46 million. It’s not bad if he performs better but his valuation on OverTheCap shows he’s just not been doing that.

Gesicki’s deal expired. Douglas is on his rookie contract and will be a real bang-for-the-buck player for a while.

Offseason priority (Scale of 1-5)

It's a 5. Top priority. Only Douglas is a starting-level wide receiver at this point.

The Patriots can re-sign Bourne and dip into both free agency and the draft for help. If they eschewed a quarterback at No. 3 and took Marvin Harrison Jr., they’d immediately have their Ja’Marr Chase-level wideout. (Good story here on his potential relative to other highly-acclaimed college wideouts.) He’s 6-foot-4, 205 and widely-regarded as the No. 2 prospect in the draft behind Caleb Williams.

It will be interesting to see what the Patriots do in free agency, where they could court guys like Calvin Ridley, Tyler Boyd or Michael Pittman. What they do in free agency may be a tell as to how deeply they’ll dive into the wide receiver group in the draft. And it’s a deep draft at the position, so the Patriots can take some swings.

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