The New England Patriots have had quite the 2021 offseason.
Starting with an uncharacteristically aggressive approach to the initial wave of free agency, to drafting their potential quarterback of the future, the Pats have set their course on a clear goal for the upcoming season: improve and contend.
The team has upgraded in several key areas on the roster. The mere presence of both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry bolsters a tight end positional grouping that was nearly nonexistent in 2020. For the first time since 1993, when the team selected quarterback Drew Bledsoe with the first overall selection, the Pats selected a quarterback in the first round: Alabama’s Mac Jones.
Despite the significant improvements made by the Pats, there are still some positions that might be described as a liability, at least in some circles of Patriots fandom. One such area on the depth chart is at wide receiver. The Patriots will begin 2021 without the services of longtime wideout Julian Edelman, who announced his retirement in April. Free agent acquisitions Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne will join incumbents N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers in what figures to be an improved group.
However, the wants and desires of Patriots fans throughout the region center around a bona fide “WR1,” which seems to have eluded the team in recent years. With Julio Jones (having been rumored as a potential Patriots’ trade target) now with the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots are likely to look to each of these four options as the new "alpha" receiver for 2021:
Despite a slow start to his 2020 campaign, Meyers finished the season as the Patriots' most productive and most reliable receiver. He appeared in 14 games, catching 59 passes on 78 targets for 729 yards. In his first two seasons, the Pats used Meyers both on the outside and in the slot. The 24 year-old has performed admirably in each role, displaying his versatility and reliability. While there are not many negatives to his game, Meyers is not the most athletic of receivers. As such, he has not displayed a penchant for providing an abundance of yards after the catch. It will be intriguing to observe his progress in this area during training camp. At the least, Meyers likely will inherit the role of Z-receiver in New England’s offense in 2021.
The potential of former first-round pick N’Keal Harry has been enigmatic, to say the least. Harry has been the subject of much scorn from the New England fan base, as well as trade rumors, throughout the offseason. He finished 2020 catching 33 passes on 55 targets for 309 yards and two touchdowns. Harry suffered a concussion in a Week 7 matchup with the San Francisco 49ers, which caused him to miss the next two weeks. While that may help to explain some of his lack of production, Harry has yet to look truly comfortable in the Patriots offense. There are times when Harry has made some brilliant catches, flashing some of the skill that made him a first-round target for the Patriots in 2019. More often than not, however, he has been a minimal factor in the Pats offense. Should he wish to improve his standing in the positional depth chart, Harry will need to stay healthy and find a rhythm that will allow him to utilize his strengths in the Patriots offense. Despite having the talent to be a top receiver, Harry is likely to be used in more of a specialized role in 2021.
About to enter his seventh year in the NFL, Agholor has been a more-than-serviceable receiver for both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Las Vegas Raiders. While he primarily played out of the slot during his time in Philadelphia, he was used primarily on vertical outside routes with the Raiders. It is likely that the Patriots would employ Agholor in the same fashion, taking advantage of his speed and ability to separate over the top. His two-year, $26 million price tag has been described as "a bit high" by certain sections of fans and media alike. However, it cannot be denied that Agholor has the chance to provide a versatility and skill set that the Pats have lacked the past few seasons.
The Pats once again attempted to bolster their receiving corps with the signing of former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. Bourne and the Pats agreed to a three-year contract worth a total of $22.5 million in the offseason. 2020 was the most productive season of his four-year career, Bourne totaled 49 receptions and 667 yards. He also caught a pair of touchdowns. Bourne is adept at playing both on the outside and in the slot and should add both youth and versatility to New England’s wide receiver corps. Of the receivers currently on the Patriots roster, Bourne may have the biggest upside, with the potential of making the biggest impact in 2021.