Forgotten But Not Gone
The Patriots made a flurry of free-agent signings last summer. As we saw, some panned out better than others. Hunter Henry caught his most touchdowns in a single season. Kendrick Bourne put up 55 catches for 800 yards and five touchdowns – a career-best. The other notable WR and TE additions, Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith, did not fare as well. What happened? What can we expect going forward?
An Afterthought In the Patriots Offense
Let’s go back to Week One… Agholor had a great opening performance against the Dolphins en route to a top 24 WR finish on the week (PPR). After having five catches for 72 yards and a touchdown, Agholor looked to be Mac Jones’ go-to guy.
It was just the start Patriots fans could have hoped for but then… Poof. In what ended up being a disappointing year for the new addition out of USC, he could not replicate the success he had with the Raiders in his first season as a Patriot.
His 37 receptions placed him just fifth on the team. On the year, his 40 total touches put him at eighth on the Patriots – the lowest mark in his career since his rookie season. All-in-all, Agholor played fourth fiddle at best to the pass-catching trio of Henry, Bourne, and Jakobi Meyers.
With DeVante Parker now in town playing on the outside, Agholor should be free to spend more time in the slot. This is important because it’s how he originally turned his career around in Philadelphia. While the speed is there, Agholor could never fill the outside role where the team saw him line up the most.
Last season, he saw less than ten percent of his snaps in the slot. Allowing him to play inside more is how he experienced his breakout season with Las Vegas. This should make him a more comfortable and effective piece of the passing attack.
A Deeper Dive (And Appreciation)
With a 63.6 receiving grade (PFF), Nelson Agholor trailed even perpetual disappointment, N’Keal Harry. Despite that, Agholor only dropped one pass, a huge leap from the 12 he had in the previous three seasons. One specific area both Agholor and Harry excelled in, however, was run-block scenarios.
Harry graded out at 84.7 – easily the best run-block mark among all Patriots receivers (PFF). His large 6’2”, 228-pound frame surely helped seal his defenders, opening up ample running lanes for Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson.
Agholor also had a higher PFF run-block grade (65.2) than his overall offensive grade on 107 more snaps than Harry. This was good for second in the receiver room. Known as a speedster with a 4.4 sec 40 at the combine, he was also adept at creating alleys for ball carriers.
The Patriots have been a pass-heavy team for decades under Tom Brady, but last year were 26th in terms of Pass Play Percentage. The wide receivers continuously showed the ability to engage their defender, get into and turn them, and drive to support the ground game. This was both underrated and extremely helpful for Mac Jones in his rookie season.
Veteran & Rookie alike: first-year Patriots – Getty Images
When free agency began in 2021, the Patriots’ priority signing was Jonnu Smith. Fetching over $31 million in guaranteed money, the team made a point to sign him early. He seemed like just the weapon on offense that Head Coach Bill Belichick could utilize effectively and efficiently.
He had just enjoyed a breakout year for the Titans, racking in 41 receptions for 448 yards and a blistering eight touchdowns. Going from an offense where AJ Brown and Derrick Henry commanded a large share of the team’s touches, to a Patriots team with no clear target hog, Smith was initially penned as a focal point for the New England offense.
Fast forward to 2022, and the uber-athletic tight end finished with a rather disappointing season. While the team tried its best to incorporate his skillset into the playbook, forcing some sweeps and screens in his direction resulted in turnovers at times. On the year, he had four dropped passes and there were two interceptions on passes where he was targeted. Both were the highest or tied for the highest mark in his career.
In addition, the team had him blocking – something he has never truly excelled at – and the grades read accordingly. (51.9 Pass Block Grade, 42.5 Run Block Grade, PFF).
In totality, there were only a few bright spots in Smith’s first season on the team. Though he only had nine rushing attempts on the year, that was easily the most of his young career. It more importantly showed the Patriots’ willingness to involve the new addition in any way they could.
He did well when called upon as a ball carrier, boasting an 83.2 Rushing Grade (PFF) and averaging just under 4.5 Yards per Carry, although obviously on a low number of attempts.
Better Days Ahead?
One area where the Patriots can utilize Smith better in year two is in target depth and location. His average Depth of Target (aDOT) mirrored that of 2020 at 5.5 yards, a number that has gradually crept up each season he has been in the league.
The thing that hurt his overall numbers then, was his Yards Before Catch per Reception (YBC/R). His YBC/R was an abysmal 2.2, less than half the mark of either of his previous two seasons in Tennessee.
Whether it was on a flat route or a short curl, Smith was not creatively used to the team’s benefit, and they struggled to get him the ball downfield. Look for that to change next season with previous Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels now in Las Vegas.
As was known when signing Smith, he works best with the ball in his hands in space. He has the shiftiness and elusiveness that not many other tight ends possess. This showed when looking at his Yards After Catch per Reception (YAC/R), where his 8.3 yards in this metric was the highest since his rookie season.
Per Next Gen Stats, Smith graded out as having the second-highest average separation among tight ends in 2021. (See the whole list of Next Gen Stats). The Patriots would be smart to find more ways to get Smith in space, where he can use his athleticism to move the ball downfield.
Final Thoughts On Patriots’ 2021 Signings
Recent comments by the Patriots organization have made it clear they expect last year’s free-agent additions to fill a larger role in their sophomore season with the team. Owner Robert Kraft said, “We’re making changes to take advantage of what they do best.”
Only time will tell if the remodeled coaching staff will adjust and allow both Smith and Agholor to display their skills more in season two. But the door is open for New England to expand each player’s role.
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