New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

What do the Patriots think of their own receivers?

That question is central to the Patriots’ off-season plan. It will be answered through their actions on the roster. And it could answer questions about others on the team, too. Because new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien by himself won’t be enough to elevate the Patriots offense to a level on par with the top contenders in the AFC.

O’Brien should at least restore the Patriots’ offensive operation to competency, a passable and functional part of the team. But “competent” most certainly describes the operations of the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals, who have now met in the AFC Championship Game two years in a row. Big difference in Kansas City: the quarterback is on another level. Big difference in Cincy: the quarterback is also on another level right now, and so are his weapons.


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  • But perhaps some of the Patriots’ key personnel guys think differently. According to Andrew Callahan of the Boston Herald last month, the Patriots are “split internally” on whether they need to upgrade their wide receiver group. Couple that with a prior report from Mike Giardi of the NFL Network that “some within” the organization believe the receiver room “needs a real upgrade.”

    Now that the offensive coordinator search is over and the coaching staff is in the process of being remade, wide receiver is the biggest remaining question for the team. More specifically, what do they end up doing?

  • Do They Need ‘That Guy?’

    KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - JANUARY 29: Ja'Marr Chase #1 of the Cincinnati Bengals catches a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs during the fourth quarter in the AFC Championship Game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium on January 29, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – JANUARY 29: Ja’Marr Chase #1 of the Cincinnati Bengals catches a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs during the fourth quarter in the AFC Championship Game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium on January 29, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    That is, do the Patriots need to add that singular, game-changing pass-catcher that dictates coverage for the opposing team? There’s at least one person within the organization who believes so, based on a source going on the record with Giardi as saying: “We don’t have one player you gotta game plan for.”

    The success of the Philadelphia Eagles after pairing quarterback Jalen Hurts with wide receiver A.J. Brown has shown the difference an elite guy can make these days. In the new modern NFL, star pass-catchers are like a cheat code. You can barely interfere with their ability to catch the ball as a defender. It’s more wide-open for these guys than it was even 10-15 years ago. Give the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase a free release and the threat of a flag for making too much contact down the field, and he becomes downright unfair.

    It’s hard to believe that guy is already in-house for the Patriots. DeVante Parker seems to believe he’s that guy. As evidenced when he said “I am that guy” in an Instagram comment on a post wondering if he could be … that guy.

  • The Pats also have Tyquan Thornton, a 2022 second-round pick who showed in training camp that his game is more than just speed. He may still need some polish on his route-running, but Thornton’s hands are NFL-caliber, and he’s flashed the ability to get separation in the short and intermediate areas. It remains to be seen if he’ll put it all together, but Thornton emerging as a top-end threat at the receiver position shouldn’t be ruled out yet.

    But even if either Thornton or Parker make a big jump in 2023 … why not more? The Eagles already had 2021 first-round pick Devonta Smith when they added A.J. Brown. The Bengals had already drafted Tee Higgins with the first pick of the second round in 2020 when they took Chase fifth overall in 2021. As thrilling as it would be for New England to see Thornton become elite, it would be even better to add an established high-end guy on top of him.

  • FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 01: Tyquan Thornton #11 of the New England Patriots catches a pass for a touchdown against Noah Igbinoghene #9 of the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on January 01, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – JANUARY 01: Tyquan Thornton #11 of the New England Patriots catches a pass for a touchdown against Noah Igbinoghene #9 of the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on January 01, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

  • So if the Patriots ultimately agree that they need a real upgrade in the receiver room, what are their options? The answer isn’t likely to come in the draft. There are potential first-round prospects, like TCU’s Quentin Johnson, USC’s Jordan Addison, and BC’s Zay Flowers, the latter of whom the Patriots’ coaches are seeing up close at the Shrine Bowl.

    But to count on one of those guys to be a generational talent like Chase, who was an All-Pro-caliber receiver the moment he entered the NFL, would be a massive risk. Nothing against the Pats devoting multiple high draft picks to receivers, which the top contenders have all been doing.

    If we arrive at 2023 training camp and the Patriots have a new, clear No. 1 receiver in the fold, it’s likely that player is already in the NFL and coming over from another team.

  • Free Agents

    Oct 9, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (16) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Detroit Lions during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Oct 9, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (16) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Detroit Lions during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    If the Patriots want to spend on a receiver off the open market, they might as well just pay Jakobi Meyers. He’s arguably the best available in a relatively thin free-agent class at the position, a logical follow-up to the massive player movement and big-money contracts flying around last year. Spotrac estimates Meyers’ annual value at $12.5 million.

    That’s actually middle-of-the-road money for a wide receiver in 2023, and a fair value for the Patriots to place on Meyers, their best and most productive receiver in 2022. He may lack the explosiveness and big-play ability to be a true No. 1 guy, but he’s as reliable as they come as a third-down possession receiver, certainly within the Pats’ system.

    Even if the Patriots decide to pay up in order to keep Meyers – and that may be difficult, since Meyers may be the most attractive free-agent option across the league – if they want a true bona fide No. 1, they have to keep looking. If they let Meyers walk, their best free-agent options would be the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, D.J. Chark, and Marvin Jones. All of whom could be fine signings, but not the kind that instantly transforms the offense.

  • Trade Market

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 13: DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Arizona Cardinals catches a pass against Jalen Ramsey #5 of the Los Angeles Rams in the third quarter of the game at SoFi Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 13: DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Arizona Cardinals catches a pass against Jalen Ramsey #5 of the Los Angeles Rams in the third quarter of the game at SoFi Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

    The most likely avenue for the Patriots to acquire a legit No. 1 receiver is via trade. And it wouldn’t be unprecedented for them to swing a deal for a high-end talent, as evidenced by the 2017 season, when they traded a first-round pick to the Saints for Brandin Cooks.

    What makes that trade unique, though, is that Cooks was still on his rookie contract and the Patriots ended up trading him away for another first-round pick in 2018. He played one season in New England for $1.5 million. Maybe this time, if they land the new Cooks, they give him a fresh contract, like the Dolphins did with Tyreek Hill or the Raiders did with Davante Adams or the Eagles did with A.J. Brown.

    Would the Broncos be interested in a deal for Jerry Jeudy? He was a former teammate of Mac Jones at Alabama, which only makes him more attractive to the Patriots. But it’s unclear whether the Broncos would even consider moving on from Jeudy, who managed a career-high 67 catches, 972 yards, and six touchdowns in 2022, despite the Broncos generally being a disaster.

  • DENVER, COLORADO - NOVEMBER 14: Tim Patrick #81 of the Denver Broncos, Jerry Jeudy #10 and Courtland Sutton #14 take to the field before a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Empower Field At Mile High on November 14, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

    DENVER, COLORADO – NOVEMBER 14: Tim Patrick #81 of the Denver Broncos, Jerry Jeudy #10 and Courtland Sutton #14 take to the field before a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Empower Field At Mile High on November 14, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

  • If the Patriots are hell-bent on getting Mac Jones one of his former Alabama teammates, their only recourse might be to call the Eagles about Devonta Smith. Perhaps there’s a chance the Eagles aren’t going to dole out another big contract for a wideout after extending A.J. Brown for four years and up to $100 million.

    The aforementioned Tee Higgins is a good comp for Cooks, as a 23-year-old on the final year of his rookie deal who has already proven to be a dynamic, productive NFL receiver. He’s caught 6-7 touchdowns in each of his three seasons and has managed to get over 70 catches and 1,000 yards in his last two, even with Chase there atop the depth chart. It remains to be seen what the Bengals themselves do with their receivers, but they will probably have to make Chase the highest-paid receiver in league history, so that could price them out of a big extension for Higgins.

    Other possible trade options to know about are the Bucs’ Mike Evans, the Colts’ Michael Pittman Jr., the Cardinals’ Marquise Brown, and the Raiders’ Hunter Renfrow. But it takes two to tango, and such a discussion won’t start unless the other team is interested. And it may take a lot for the Patriots to convince them.

  • The Do-Nothings

    ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 08: DeVante Parker #1 of the New England Patriots and Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots celebrate after Parker's touchdown reception during the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 08, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 08: DeVante Parker #1 of the New England Patriots and Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots celebrate after Parker’s touchdown reception during the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 08, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    As alluded to before, if the Patriots stand pat and roll with who they have at receiver, that’s putting a ton of faith in the likes of Thornton, Parker, and Bourne. It’s also putting a lot of faith in Mac Jones to make it all work, and in the offensive line to have a major rebound season in 2023.

    The current Patriots receiving corps could be enough for a guy like Patrick Mahomes. Joe Burrow could probably make it work. And it’s a misconception that Tom Brady won without that guy, because he had him, he just happened to play tight end. Is Jones close to those guys? He certainly hasn’t been in terms of production, and questions remain about how much Jones will be able to cover up whatever flaws they have on the roster. Ideally, the Patriots minimize their flaws and field a more complete team in 2023, and get Jones some help, definitely in terms of pass protection.

    But in terms of pass-catching? Even the Chiefs and Bengals continue to stack talented receivers on their depth charts, despite having elite franchise quarterbacks. So say Mac Jones takes a meteoric leap in 2023 and suddenly he’s right there with Mahomes and Burrow. We could still come out of the season wondering if he could use more weapons, after the Pats can’t contain Chase or Stefon Diggs or even Travis Kelce in the playoffs.

  • FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 01: Wide receiver Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills catches a first half touchdown pass in front of cornerback Jonathan Jones #31 of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 01, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 01: Wide receiver Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills catches a first half touchdown pass in front of cornerback Jonathan Jones #31 of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 01, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

  • But, as always, it’s not about what you or I want, but what the Patriots want. What they end up doing at receiver will tell us a lot about how they feel about the incumbent roster, and where they really stand in the AFC going forward.

    Click here for complete New England Patriots coverage at 985TheSportsHub.com.

    Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. Check out all of Matt’s content here.

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