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Reasons to Be Cheerful About the 2021 Patriots, Part III: Tight Ends and Receivers

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In the first two posts in this series that celebrates both optimism and eclectic, British, post-Punk New Wave music, I spread the glad tidings of the season about the 2021 Patriots upgrades in the pass rush and the run defense. Now that we've metaphorically forced a punt, let's proverbially send the other unit onto the abstract field and talk about the improved attack on offense. Beginning with the "skill" positions of tight end and wide receiver 

As sell jobs go, this should be the easiest deal to close since mid-90s Julia Roberts talked Lyle Lovett into bed. Short of some obvious choice like Jacksonville adding Trevor Lawrence, you could argue that no position group in the league has seen a year-to-year improvement the way these two have. This was not a software patch, it's a brand new laptop and router with more bandwidth. 

The Patriots were third from the bottom of the league in receiving yards, dead last in passing touchdowns, and 27th in passer rating. And were graded 25th in receiving by Pro Football Focus. Which is one of those examples of when the analytics don't measure what your lying eyes are telling you. 

This is especially true at the position around which Josh McDaniels' offense is built. The tight end depth chart had fallen into utter disrepair over the last few seasons even before last year. Pre-retirement Rob Gronkowski was a shadow of his former self. But even his shadow on a foggy, overcast day would've doubled the output of what followed him. In 2019, an unretired Ben Watson led the group with 20 receptions for 211 yards. (So it's fair to ask just how much he came out of retirement.) In 2020, it was like the tight end position itself had spent the whole offseason in a bathrobe watching "Tiger King" and yelling through the door for the Doordash guy to just leave the delivery on the mat. It was a mess. 

Even though the Pats invested heavily in terms of Draft Dogecoin on Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, they got, if not zero results, then 0.1 results. I suppose it's due to the fact that playing TE in the McOffense is a complex task that takes a while to master and the rookies had a lost offseason, but Watson - a shadow of Gronk's foggy, overcast shadow - still would've been the TE1 in this group. It was that bad. With 18 catches for 254 yards and one touchdown among the three tight ends, with 13 of those receptions and 199 yards coming from Ryan Izzo. 

I acknowledge that so far, there's not a single reason to be cheerful in any of this. That part comes now. Or better yet, came during the legal tampering period that precedes free agency. Bill Belichick went in like a dad staying in a Disney resort taking advantage of Early Opening to take the kids on all the rides, and was back at the hotel pool relaxing before the tourists knew what hit them. He spent all that salary captocurrency he'd been saving up on the consensus No. 2 available tight end, Jonnu Smith as soon as the park opened, and it felt like he'd addressed all his need. Then 24 hours later, shook the football world by adding the No. 1 TE, Hunter Henry. And transformed this crucial position from the undisputed worst in the league to likely the best. At least in terms of the top two spots. 

In a memo from his time in Cleveland that was made public last year, GM Bill stated that as far as tight ends go, he'll take a guy who can run and catch every time, with blocking being secondary because you can always find a third tackle type for short money. And get some pass catching tight ends, he most certainly did. 

Jonnu Smith. Playing for Tennessee last year, Smith ranked as follows among tight ends:

Receptions: 20th with 41

Yards: 20th with 448

Yards per reception: 19th with 10.9

Touchdowns: 4th with 8

Passer rating when targeted: 12th, with 112.3 

PFF receiving grade: 8th

Hunter Henry. Playing for the Chargers last year, he ranked:

Receptions: 8th, with 60

Yards: 12th, with 618

Yards per reception: 26th, with 10.2

Touchdowns: 16th, with 4

Pass rating when targeted: 29th, with 99.4 

PFF receiving grade: 23rd

Not to get too into the analogy weeds (I'm probably already neck deep at this point), but the difference between this position last year and this year is not night and day. It is night on Pluto vs high noon on Mercury. And while Keene was drafted to be that primary blocking TE/H-back young Belichick said he didn't have much use for, Asiasi was considered the best route runner at his position in the 2020 rookie class, with excellent hands and coming from a top program at UCLA. So it would be a mistake to sleep on him after a full year in the program. Aside from the obvious point that the team didn't spend all those Kraftbucks on Smith and Henry not to play the both full time in a two tight end "Joker" set, so Asiasi's chances will be limited. But being a third option in 2021 beats the bejeebers out of being the non-option ("noption?" I like it. I'll use it) he was before. 

Moving onto the wide receivers, if there's a reason the 2020 Patriots managed to crawl out of the ooze at the bottom of the swamp to an almost respectable PFF receiving grade, it's all because of Jakobi Meyers. His 59 receptions and 729 yards was good for the 24th highest grade, right behind Brandin Cooks. Despite the fact the only touchdowns he produced (2) were with his throwing arm. Now thanks to GM Bill tapping his debit card all over the place, 2020's default WR1 has the luxury of settling into a nice role as a WR3. Though, if you watched him at all last year, with his ability to use precise, efficient footwork to shake coverage and get himself open, you'd have to be a first class dope to think he's just going to quietly accept a demotion. Besides, this is a scheme that has always managed to find opportunities for quality, productive wideouts who come relatively out of nowhere. Wes Welker was undrafted like Meyers and wallowed in obscurity in Miami for three years before becoming a Pro Bowler. Troy Brown and Julian Edelman were late round picks who kept their jobs through special teams before coming on to carry their teams to multiple championships. And each of Meyers first two seasons have been infinitely better than any of theirs were. 

Meyers competition for those snaps, thanks to some profligate spending:

Nelson Agholor.  Yes, most pundits think that signing him for two years at $26 million was overspending. Even for a guy who ledd the league with 18.7 yards per reception (minimum of 40 catches), was 12th in touchdowns, caught almost 900 yards and was just behind DK Metcalf for 29th in passer rating when targeted (113.7). And yes, we have to all acknowledge that his drop percentage of 15.8% (according to PFF) was 6th worst in the league. But it should be remembered that all of this was on a weird, enigmatic, dysfunctional Raiders team. One that, to his credit, Agholor tried like hell to get them to straighten up and fly right. 

Pro Football Talk - The Raiders’ first season in Las Vegas busted on a Saturday night against the Dolphins, when Miami pulled off a ridiculously unlikely come-from-behind win fueled by a horrible defensive call, a bad coverage, and a grab and twist of Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s facemask that made him look like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

After the game, Raiders receiver Nelson Agholor had some choice words for his teammates.

Via Vic Tafur of TheAthletic.com, “Agholor . . . said his teammates were selfish and didn’t work hard enough, and that they had quit against the Dolphins as well as in the previous two losses. He said there was no accountability in the locker room, and on winning teams players play for one another and the coaches. . . . Agholor told his teammates that they sucked.”

Oh, hell yeah. Bring us some of that sweet, sweet accountability, winning attitude, and playing for one another. If it won't fly in Vegas, it sure fits well in Foxboro. And as I've mentioned before, I've heard from Pats employees that Agholor has gone out of his way to say how grateful he is to be part of the organization and how much he loves it here. Top 18 yards a catch on a team that lacked any sort of a deep threat last year and it'll be mutual, fast. 

Kendrick Bourne. I'll admit Bourne's 2020 stat line of 49 catches, 667 yards, 13.7 per, 2 TDs, 95.1 PR isn't going to blow anybody's lips off. And mainly looks good in comparison to the non-Jakobi numbers we witnessed last year. The Boston 6 who looks good because she's at the bachelorette party with a bunch of Weymouth 4.5s. I get that. But again, he was on a team that was a mess. Not in terms of dysfunction like Agholor's, but with a turnstyle at quarterback, with Jimmy Garoppolo hurt, half the starts going to Nick Mullins and two more going to CJ Beathard. There's a reason why John Lynch took out a second mortgage on his team's draft future to move up to No. 3 and take a QB. Bourne has experience in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Which, while it differs from McDaniels', at least they translate easily. As demonstrated by how easily Jimmy G took to it and Brian Hoyer was sent back to New England in the trade for him. Bourne is about to turn 26, and he's already been to a Super Bowl. In his three postseason games in San Fran, he has six catches, a 14.7 YPR average and a TD. Making him a solid, if unspectacular addition. But more to the point, a plug-and-play guy who can fit right in from Week 1. Something not a lot of wideouts have shown they can do in this system. 

Behind these three wideouts, you've still got N'Keal Harry. Maybe. Possibly. I'm not holding out much hope but there's enough physical talent hidden in there someplace to have some belief he can harness it's mighty power in what is his last shot. I truly believe that Gunner Olzsewski is on that aforementioned career path of roster bubble-to special team ace-to productive slot receiver that Brown, Welker and Edelman took to glory. And if you don't mind strapping on a miner's helmet and spelunking deep into the depth chart (watch your step), Isaiah Zuber has been standing out at practices all offseason. 

By no means am I suggesting it's a wide receiver upgrade like the one we saw between 2006 and '07. That was such a rapid ascent we were all getting treated for the bends. But signing two top-tier free agents at the top level of both of your receiving corps is unheard of. Especially around this nape of the woods. Neck of the wape. So there's another reason to be cheerful. So cheers.