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By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Leading up to the start of training camp, we’ll be breaking down each position on the Patriots roster. Here’s a look at New England’s current crop of wide receivers, which once again is a big mystery heading into the 2021 season.
Wide receiver was not a position of strength for the Patriots in 2020. Julian Edelman played in just six games in what would be his final NFL season. The big offseason signing was Damiere Byrd, and he had just 47 receptions. New England’s top receiving threat ended up being second-year receiver Jakobi Meyers, who led the team in receptions (59), targets (81) and receiving yards (729). He, however, did not have a touchdown grab all season.
Patriots receivers as a whole caught just four touchdowns in 2020, led by N’Keal Harry’s two. And that was really all the team got out of Harry, who overall was a disappointment in his second year, catching just 33 passes in his 14 games.
What the heck happened at receiver last year? It’s the ole chicken and the egg adage: Were New England receivers so bad because Cam Newton was pretty bad at throwing the football, or was Cam Newton so bad at throwing the football because there was so little at the wide receiver position? It was a lot from column A and column B throughout the year, and it was a large part of why the Patriots offense was so inconsistent throughout the year.
Which brings us to 2021, where the Patriots should be better at wide receiver. But there is a lot of unknown remaining at the position, including the lack of a clear No. 1 target.
Offseason Additions: Agholor (free agency), Bourne (free agency), Hall (free agency), Nixon (NFL Draft)
Offseason Subtractions: Julian Edelman (retirement), Damiere Byrd (free agency), Donte Moncrief (free agency)
Agholor and Bourne are both fine additions, but neither jump off the page as a legit No. 1 option for Newton, Mac Jones or whomever is throwing the football for the Patriots throughout the year. Agholor gives the Patriots a solid veteran receiver, albeit one who is more famous for his questionable hands. (Philly fans can be brutal, and they certainly cut Agholor no slack throughout a tough 2019 season.) But he is a solid route-runner and has a knack for creating some big plays, averaging 18.7 yards per reception for the Raiders in 2020 — good for second-best in the NFL. He also tied his career-high of eight touchdowns last season in Las Vegas.
Bourne can also turn in a big reception or two, averaging 13.6 yards per catch for the 49ers last season. The 4.5 yards he averaged after his 49 receptions will also be a welcome addition to the New England receiving corps. Meyers and Byrd were New England’s YAC leaders at receiver last season at 3.7. Running back James White led the team, averaging 8.4 yards after the catch.
While promising, those two free agent additions still carry their share of question marks; Agholor for his hands and Bourne because he’ll be asked to play a bigger role in New England.
Meyers appears to be the only sure thing in the receiving corps, as he looks to build off a tremendous 2020 season. He only had a pair of 100-plus yard games — highlighted by a 12-catch, 114-yard showing in a win over the Jets — but he showed flashes of potential throughout the year.
And then there is Harry, who made it clear a few weeks ago that he doesn’t want to be in New England anymore. The former first-round pick still has potential, but is treading the waters of being a full-blown bust. He could be New England’s No. 4 receiver in 2021, but that spot won’t be flush with opportunity given the offseason signings of tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Those two will likely share the field quite a bit this season, so four-receiver sets could be pretty rare in the New England offense. And given the Pats likely won’t get much for him in the trade market, Harry will probably be here throughout camp. He could be a casualty come cut-down time, but any injuries at the receiver position would give Harry another chance.
Rounding out the group is Olszewski, a solid slot option who does most of his damage in the return game, and bubble guys in Zuber, Smith, Hall and Wilkerson. Nixon could land on the practice squad after being Ernie Adams’ pick in the seventh round, and we all know that while Slater is listed as a receiver, he is the king of special teams.
The 2021 receiving corps of the Patriots still has a lot of question marks surrounding the group, though Agholor and Bourne are solid additions that should help increase the group’s production. And with Smith and Henry likely getting a lot of passes thrown their way, receivers may not be asked to do as much in New England as they would be on other teams.
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