Despite a rough first year, the Patriots seem to be putting their faith in Year 2. With key players like Nelson Agholor and Mac Jones looking to build on strong Rookie Seasons, New England will look much different than it did at this time last season.
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS — The New England Patriots’ optional offseason program is in its fourth week, and veteran wide receiver Nelson Agholor has already seen a change.
“Everyone runs specific routes,” he said, “but the route tree [here] is a bit different from what I’ve done before.” “Now that I know it, I can put my own twist on it and play quickly.”
“Whereas a year ago, I was still learning, so you proceed at your own pace. You never get to go full speed because you want to make sure you’re doing everything correctly, so you move slowly and carefully. Now that I’ve seen what it looks like, all I have to do is add my own flavor.”
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If coach Bill Belichick’s team wants to improve on last season’s 10-7 record and humiliating 47-17 playoff defeat to the Buffalo Bills, Agholor and a handful of other Patriots entering their second season in New England will need that flavor.
The explanation is simple: unlike last offseason, when the Patriots spent a then-record $163 million in guaranteed money in free agency Belichick was more cautious this year, relying on internal development from free agents and draft selections in 2021.
Agholor is a perfect illustration of this way of thinking. In March of 2021, he signed a two-year, $22 million contract, but his output (37 catches, 473 yards, 3 touchdowns) didn’t meet the price tag for a number of reasons. He is confident, though, that brighter days are coming.
“Year two in the Patriots’ system is when people really start rolling, which is the finest part. I’m at ease, and I’m looking forward to having my finest season with the Patriots and proving why I’m here “he added.
Agholor is joined at the top of the receiver depth chart by fellow returnees Jakobi Meyers (team-high 83 catches for 866 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Kendrick Bourne (55 for 800, 5 touchdowns), with veteran trade acquisition DeVante Parker and speedy second-round pick Tyquan Thornton rounding out the top five.
Second-year gains aren’t assured, and a number of players, including receiver N’Keal Harry, cornerback Joejuan Williams, tight end Devin Asiasi, and linebackers Josh Uche, Chase Winovich, and Anfernee Jennings, serve as reminders that it may go the other way.
With Agholor as a springboard, the Patriots need to make a substantial second-year leap with the following players acquired in 2021:
Tight finish Jonnu Smith: He received a four-year, $50 million contract last season but only had 28 catches for 294 yards and a score. In the hopes of regaining his footing, he made a huge adjustment by enrolling full-time in the volunteer offseason program. Last year, he was unable to participate in the program owing to the birth of his daughter and COVID-19 concerns.
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Ronnie Perkins, a third-round selection from Oklahoma (96th overall), didn’t play in a single game, owing to Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy’s dominance at the outside linebacker position. After the club dismissed Van Noy (Chargers), he has a smoother road to a job… provided he demonstrates he merits it.
Cornerback Shaun Wade: The Ravens chose the Ohio State graduate in the fifth round, and the Patriots acquired him at the conclusion of the preseason in exchange for a 2022 seventh-round selection and a 2023 fifth-rounder. Wade, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 191 pounds, only appeared in three games due to injuries and a learning curve after coming late. Mike Pellegrino, the cornerbacks coach, said last season that Wade was learning a new language. Following J.C. Jackson’s free agency departure, the Patriots have a significant vacancy at cornerback, which Wade will battle for.
Raekwon McMillan, linebacker: Last year, the veteran was making strides in training camp before tearing his left ACL and missing the whole season. Given his injury history, relying on him for a 17-game season carries a significant risk. Belichick had remarked before the injury last year: “His intellect and work ethic have both pleased me. Every day, he’s locked up.”
Safety Joshuah Bledsoe: A sixth-round selection out of Missouri, he came in town with a broken wrist and spent the most of the season rehabilitating before returning to practice late in the season. He never made an appearance in a game. Based on some encouraging behind-the-scenes improvement, he has a genuine opportunity to be a part of the team’s future if he stays healthy.