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Film room: What Bruce Ellington will bring to the Patriots offense

New England signed the 27-year-old as a free agent.

NFL: Houston Texans at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

While big name free agent wide receivers like Adam Humphries, Golden Tate and Cole Beasley all ended up elsewhere, the New England Patriots re-signed Phillip Dorsett and brought in the likes of Maurice Harris and Bruce Ellington. While none of them can be considered a surefire lock to make the club’s 53-man team when rosters get cut down in five months, they could very well carve out roles on a receiving corps in transition.

Ellington in particular projects to be an interesting addition, not just because of his experience returning kickoffs and punts: the 27-year-old, who joined New England on a one-year, $895,000 contract, has a skill set that could work well in the Patriots’ offensive system. Let’s take a look at some of his film to find out what the former fourth-round draft selection brings to the table — and how this could impact his chances of making the team.

At 5’9, 200 lbs, Ellington is not exactly a physically imposing presence. Despite his smaller frame, however, and rather average athletic skills, he knows how to successfully attack defenses — as can be seen in this play from the 2018 season, when Ellington’s Detroit Lions played against the Arizona Cardinals. One of his four catches on the day, saw the wideout originally motion across the formation to align in a two-man stack to the offense’s left.

With the Cardinals playing man coverage, Ellington was able to get a free release due to Arizona’s defensive backs switching responsibilities, and catch the football on a quick in-break. Nothing fancy, but him showing solid chemistry with his quarterback for a short pickup. Following the catch, Ellington quickly reacted by turning towards the boundary to make the defender overrun him — a move that allowed him to add additional yardage.

Ellington’s moving skills and ability to diagnose openings in coverage and with the ball in his hands are certainly two of his best attributes (and also reasons for his solid career return averages of 7.8 yards per punt and 25.6 yards per kickoff runback). The following play from the Lions’ game against the Los Angeles Rams is further illustration of this:

Running towards the flat on a double-fake handoff, Ellington received the football in open space but five yards short of the first-down marker. As soon as he caught the football from Matthew Stafford on a quick pass, Ellington headed up the field before stopping on the dime when he saw the first defender running alongside him. The quick stop-and-go motion allowed him to stay upright and turn a minimal gain on the play into a first down.

While Ellington’s quickness should not be confused with the likes of Julian Edelman or ex-Patriot Danny Amendola, he is able to successfully execute cuts in the open field to avoid tacklers and earn additional yards with the football in his hands. In this sense, the ex-Lion can be seen as a physically lesser version of Cordarrelle Patterson: like the former Patriot, he will not be able to consistently win his matchups at wide receiver but has undeniable abilities with the football in his hand.

This play from the same game against the Los Angeles Rams — one of only four contests the in-season trade acquisition appeared in for Detroit before being placed on injured reserve — also shows this:

Ellington is able to get open against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman thanks to first faking an outside release before quickly cutting back to the middle of the field. Stafford sees this and hits the wideout in stride, allowing him to take advantage of his vision to make something with the ball in his hands. Ellington attempts to, but ultimately is tackled by the ankle after jump-cutting away from a first defender trying to take him down.

Speaking of Ellington’s vision, he also know how to use it in order to exploit zone coverage:

Aligning in the left-side slot, Ellington moved towards the middle of the field after the snap and patiently sat down in his zone. While the play itself gained only a couple of yards, it illustrates the wideout’s skills when it comes to recognizing zones and getting open quickly as a safety-net receiver. As mentioned above, he is no Julian Edelman when it comes to doing that but he is a solid commodity as a rotational option.

Ellington — otherwise they wouldn’t have invested in him — displays plenty of the skills the Patriots like from their wide receivers: he shows a solid chemistry with his quarterback, recognizes coverage schemes and its weaknesses, and is able to make plays with the football in his hands. While no particular skill of his stands out among them, and his athleticism is nothing to write home about, the South Carolina product could very well find success in New England.

If Ellington is able to carve out a Patterson-type role as a returnman and fourth wide receiver option, he could very well earn a spot on the team on what is a relatively modest contract. In that way, acquiring him can be classified as a low-risk, potentially high-reward move from the world champions — one, that New England has had tremendous success making in the past.