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The Science is Settled: The Patriots Have the Most Improved WR Corps in the League

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Brian Bahr. Getty Images.

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It's stating the excruciatingly painful obvious to say the Patriots passing game was among the worst in the league. They were Bottom 5 in passing yards, touchdowns, TD%, and passer rating, while having the highest INT% in football. And while the reasons for this open, pus-filled wound of a passing attack were many and varied, one position group stood alone in its ineptitude. The wide receiver room. 

By no means does this let anyone else off the hook. Mac Jones earned that exile to the bench in Jacksonville. The pass blocking let everyone down for most of the season. Bill O'Brien never schemed a way to overcome the issues. This system-wide failure was a group effort, and pretty much everyone did their share to make it complete. 

But the wide receivers were particularly bad. By way of example, 14 different Patriots caught passes in 2023. Judging them by passer rating when targeted, none of the wideouts cracked the team's Top 5. Among the ones who ranked 6th-14th, TE Mike Gesick (7th) was the only non-WR. 

Applying that same standard and comparing this group to the rest of the league, the top Patriots receiver was Kendrick Bourne, who ranked 70th. And unfun fact about Bourne: Going into Week 12, he still led all Patriots in receiving yards, even though he was lost for the season in Week 8. And he still finished third, behind only Demario Douglas and Hunter Henry. And now with Devante Parker - who finished 4th in receiving yards (and zero touchdowns) mercifully gone after back-to-back unimpressive seasons, it's stating the obvious that this was a WR room desperately in need of a massive upgrade. Which doesn't stop me from stating it. 

The good news is that the analytics crowd has spoken. And they've chosen New England's as the most improved receiver unit in the league:

Pro Football Focus (paywall) - The Patriots entered the weekend in Detroit in dire need of help for their presumptive highly touted quarterback. After choosing North Carolina’s Drake Maye third overall, de facto general manager Eliot Wolf worked on upgrading Maye’s surrounding cast.

New England used the No. 37 overall pick to select Washington’s Ja’Lynn Polk, who excels in the middle of the field, as evidenced by his 94.0 receiving grade on intermediate passes and 97.1 grade on deep passes between the numbers. Polk should also serve as a blocking asset from day one.

But the Patriots weren’t done there. Wolf scooped up UCF’s Javon Baker at Pick No. 110, a standout in advanced metrics despite not being a household name in the pre-draft process. Baker is a tremendous deep threat, with his average target coming 17.1 yards downfield during the 2023 season — the third-highest mark among FBS receivers with 80-plus targets. The former Knight has already captured fans' attention because of some supreme self-confidence, too.

Although New England added K.J. Osborn late in the free agency cycle, both Polk and Baker should command targets in a room joined by JuJu Smith-Schuster, Demario Douglas and Kendrick Bourne. Only Douglas even reached the 75.0 receiving grade threshold as well as eclipsed 500 yards.

And just as an added extra bonus bit of hope, the data nerds have positive things to say about improvements to the tight end group as well:

Although the Patriots’ tight end room was in good shape with Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper, the team made a shrewd selection of Florida State’s Jaheim Bell in the seventh round. Bell proved elusive after the catch, averaging 9.2 yards after the catch per reception during his four-year career. On top of that, Bell brings positional versatility, having played 46.1% of snaps inline, 39.3% in the slot and even 8.3% out wide last season. He may start as a special teamer in Foxboro, but a good preseason could present Bell with more first-team snaps out of 12 or 13 personnel.

I'll be honest, I haven't been expecting anything out of the selection of Jaheim Bell other than him maybe landing on the practice squad if he shows promise in camp. This team has traditionally allowed tight ends to take their sweetass time developing. Even Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, who were 1st round picks in the early 2000s, didn't crack the 400-yard mark until their second seasons. Rob Gronkowski played all of his rookie season and had over 500 yards with 10 TDs. But he didn't truly become Gronk until Year 2 (1,300 yards, 17 TDs). If Bell contributes in special teams and blocking out of sub-packages as a rookie, I'll be over the moon about it. 

But that's me burying the lede again. The true takeaway is that Eliot Wolf changed the franchise's core philosophy by drafting for need. If the published reports and rumor are correct, he failed in his attempt to move up into the 1st round to get Xavier Legette or Keon Coleman. But he did manage to drop back a few slots in the 2nd, thus moving up from the 5th to the Chargers pick in the 4th. Thus adding both Ja'Lynn Polk and Javon Baker. Whom the numbers crunchers at Cris Collinsworth's little droid factory respect enough to declare this the most upgraded wide receiver room in the NFL. 

That's not my opinion. This is not just me going back to my default setting of being super positive about every move this team makes. (I lost that mindset about two dozen failed personnel moves ago.) This is coming from the analysts. 

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Let's hope the PFF crew is right. I suppose the one thing besides their optimism that we can hang our hat on is that, however much Polk and Baker help, things can't be any worse than they were.