I'm going to share the following story of my personal journey not to talk about myself, but in order to help others who are currently suffering with the same affliction. I hope that by talking about my own struggles and how I've learned to deal with them, it might inspire others who feel they are alone and have no one else to turn to.
Oftentimes, mental health professionals will talk of a triggering incident. Something which can recall in someone feelings they felt they had under control. And in extreme cases, set off a downward spiral. In my own situation, it was this news yesterday:
I suppose that to the average American, this was very small news. Hardly noteworthy or deserving of more than a brief thought, and then they got right back to their lives. A fairly nondescript NFL veteran signs a one-year deal in early May. But to some of us - me in particular - it was much, much more. Because while Damiere Byrd signing for a bottom-of-the-market contract might be a minor incident to most, to me it was a reminder of the trauma of last year. Of the fact Byrd was the Patriots No. 2 wide receiver in 2020. Second at the position in receptions, second in receiving yards, second in touchdowns, with one.
Again, we went through an entire NFL season where our second most productive wideout played all 16 games and was 72nd in the league in yards. And still couldn't land a job until after the draft. The FA version of a UDFA, if you will. This is not meant as a knock on Byrd, who played hard and was as productive as anyone could've asked. It's meant as a reflection of just how bad the situation was last year. And how much better it needs to be this coming year.
By way of full disclosure, let me come clean on my history with this position. I've never considered myself addicted to it. In fact, I'm on record as saying that wide receiver is not only the most overvalued, overpaid position in pro football, but in all of sports. At least in the 2000s. Prior to the turn of the century, becoming Super Bowl champions almost required you to have elite, highly drafted wideouts. Since then, it's practically never been the case. (The 2015 Broncos and last year's Bucs being notable exceptions.) And I don't consider myself as having a wideout habit now. But for the first time since 2006 I got a taste for what life is like with practically no talent at the position, and I can't go back there again. It worried me to the point the I had a physical, psychosomatic reaction to the very thought of it. Which has been the source of my struggles.
Yes, the Patriots made upgrades. Some fine additions:
Nelson Agholor in 2020: 82 targets, 48 receptions, 58.5%, 896 yards, 18.7 YPR, 8 TDs, 113.7 passer rating when targeted
Kendrick Bourne in 2020: 72 targets, 48 receptions, 68.1%, 667 yards, 136 YPR, 2 TDs, 95.1 passer rating when targeted
Both are upgrades, there's no doubting that. But my anxiety remained. Like most of New England, I was hoping for more in the draft. Especially a capable slot receiver to replace Julian Edelman. And while I'm perfectly happy with Priority One addressed with a quarterback and two promising defenders in the Top 100, I'm disappointed the only receiver taken was with their last pick (Tre Nixon, UCF, 242nd overall).
Which begs the question: Will Agholor and Bourne be enough? Is the WR situation improved to where the Patriots can compete? Or are they just less bad than the worst group in the league last year? In other words, has enough been done so that we can stop stressing? Especially someone like myself who traditionally hasn't been worried about receivers?
Well I'm happy to say I've had what Jules Winnfield says alcoholics call "a moment of clarity." There are paths to success with the WR depth chart as it's currently constituted. I offer these suggestions, not just for myself, but to bring hope to all who are dealing with this issue.
Here are the possible solutions to our problems:
How deep really does the Patriots WR depth chart need to go? Not very. The tight end free agent signings saw to that. With Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in the fold, Josh McDaniels gets to return to some semblance of the gilded age of the Joker offense. A base 12 personnel that relies on just two wideouts. And even when they go to 5-wide, can incorporate James White as the fifth receiver, the way they have in the past and did with Shane Vereen. When three receivers are called for, they can go that deep thanks to Jakobi Meyers (59 catches, 729 yards) in a role he's better suited for, as a WR3 instead of a WR1. And while we're talking depth …
You're not alone. I just did a spit take too. But hear me out. Somewhere in there with this guy is the ability that made him a top 3-5 prospect two years ago. A guy NFL.com compared to Allen Robinson saying, "Back-shoulder boss who thrives with contested catch opportunities outside the numbers but lacks explosive traits. Harry's ability to body-up opponents and win with ball skills is undeniable. … His competitiveness and ability to come down with the ball could make him a productive member of wide receiver trio in short order" even while acknowledging he lacks top end speed. There are guys who break down All-22s who say he was open consistently last year, finding space and waiving to Cam Newton and never seeing the ball. Who can say? All I know is that they don't need him to be DK Metcalf (good thing). They need him to be a tough, physical possession receiver who'll outmuscle defenders for the ball, set up manageable down-and-distances, and make the chains move. And if he does, he'll earn reps and maybe salvage his so far disastrous career. It's that or he'll be gone.
Sticking with the theme of bad career starts, the second tight end taken in the draft last year had what was in no uncertain terms, a redshirt freshman season. Even though the team was desperate for tight end help, he only dressed for just over half their games. But if you weren't looking for him, you wouldn't have noticed. He played like he slipped on the Ring of Power every time he ran a route. And by that I don't mean he was invincible; I mean he was invisible. He was only targeted seven times. On the season, he caught two balls, one for a toucdown. Which equals Cam Newton's totals. Though to be fair, Asiasi had four more receiving yards than his quarterback. Anyhoo … He's not yet 24 years old. At 6-foot-3, 257, he's too big to be considered a wideout, but he's more of a pass catcher than a pure inline tight end. He's got the route running skills to be more of a flex type, hybrid, "move" tight end, who can motion and line up detached from the formation and create mismatches. With Henry and Smith locked in at the TE1 and TE2 spots, he'll have to. But the talent is there. And now that he's had a year to learn the system, there's reason to be hopeful the team can tap into the raw talent.
Take a pill; I'm strictly talking about Olszewski as a slot receiver. It's not hard to look at his progress, going from a UDFA out of Bemidji State two years ago, showing the coaches enough to justify a roster spot, developing into the best punt returner in the league last year and seeing misty, water-colored memories of the career paths of Edelman, Wes Welker and Troy Brown before him. At 6-feet-0 and 190 pounds, he's bigger than either of them. And Edelman, Welker and Brown all started their careers as pure special teamers. Hell, Welker had no receptions as a rookie and was the Dolphins kicker in a game against the Patriots. Brown had a total of two catches in his first two seasons and was getting released by Bill Parcells every other week. The slot receiver's job in New England is predicated on short area quickness, toughness, willingness to go over the middle and take hits, brains and spatial awareness. It's where those players excelled, and it's not a stretch to say Olszewski can begin to transition into that role too.
Thanks for reading. It's been very therapeutic for me, and I hope for you too. But understand that this is just what's working for me, and can't be taken as professional advice. If your problems persist, I strongly suggest your wide receiver provider.