During the 2019 season, the New England Patriots had a total of three rookie wide receivers on their 53-man roster at some point: first-round pick N’Keal Harry appeared in eight games after starting the year on injured reserve, while undrafted free agents Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski saw action in fifteen and eight contests, respectively. All three showed some flashes but ultimately had only limited production in their first seasons in the NFL.
Injuries — both Harry and Olszewski were sidelined for considerable stretches of time — obviously played a part in this, but so did the difficult transition from the college level to playing against the pros. This transition was also mentioned during the media availability session at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis on Tuesday. While no members of the Patriots took the podium to address it, one of Bill Belichick’s closest friends did.
Mike Mayock, a former defensive back playing under Belichick who turned NFL Network analyst and now serves as the Las Vegas Raiders’ general manager, spent 18 minutes on stage to speak about a variety of issues relating to the draft and his team. At one point, Mayock also was asked about the lack of production from rookie wide receivers at the next level — something the Patriots know all too well after their 2019 season.
For Mayock, there are three main reasons why pass catchers in particular struggle to adapt to life in the NFL:
Reason No. 1: Press coverage
“Reason number one is the lack of quality press coverage in college football. When you’ve got a grown man trying to keep you from getting off the line of scrimmage that’s competent, long and tough, that’s a different issue. That’s number one,” said Mayock
Defensive backs being more physical at the next level and more likely to play press-man versus granting free releases is something pass catchers need to get used to, and for some this takes longer than others. New England in particular struggled against press during the 2019 season, with not just the rookies but veteran players also being incapable of consistently getting open when challenged at the line of scrimmage.
Reason No. 2: Complexity of the game
“Number two is when you are able to get off the line of scrimmage and the picture changes, the coverage changes, you can go from being the third option on the backside to being the first option on the front side and you got to filter that on the run without slowing down,” added Mayock. “So, think about it. When you have to slow down and you’re thinking, what happens? Physically you’re slower, you’re not there. Why do guys not look as quick as they did in college? That’s usually the biggest telltale because they are confused. They are not sure where they are going.”
The NFL is a much more nuanced game than the one being played in college, and the Patriots are one of the best examples of that: their offense is largely based on option-principles which change responsibilities based on the defensive looks. While this makes the unit much more harder to defend, it also makes learning it a bigger challenge for players — both rookies and veterans — inserted into the system from the outside.
Reason No. 3: Information overflow
“I think number three, it’s just how much offense you have to absorb,” Mayock continued. “I’ve met with some of the college wideouts already this year and what they are doing. Half of them look over at the sideline pre-snap and they have their own individual coach telling them what route to run. Jon Gruden’s head would explode. You better get in there and get in the huddle, and you’d better learn three positions not one.”
The third reason given by Mayock why rookie production is oftentimes limited is closely tied to the second one: players have a lot of information to process and work with during games. As a result, their usage is often limited — something that was obvious in New England last year as N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski were given clearly defined roles that were much smaller than those of veteran wideouts on the roster.
Add all those three reasons up and you get why first-year players have a difficult time in the system, especially at the wide receiver position. For the Patriots, the hope therefore is that all three of their 2019 rookies will be able to learn from their experiences and improve heading into 2020.