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2020 NFL draft: The Patriots’ passing offense needs to get more explosive

Related: Wide Receiver is a position of need for the Patriots, but when will they address it?

New England Patriots v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

With Tom Brady under center, the New England Patriots were guaranteed to field one of the most productive aerial attacks in all of football on a week-to-week and season-to-season basis. His 2019 campaign with the team, however, was an exception and can be seen as an anomaly compared to years past: Brady and the Patriots’ passing game struggled to recapture the magic of previous seasons, and were the team’s Achilles heel entering the playoffs before eventually dooming the team in its quest to defend its Super Bowl title.

While he was the most important player within the offense, the blame for New England’s issues lies not primarily with Brady but rather with the players who surrounded him. Whether it was due to injury or inexperience, or because of issues off the field, the Patriots’ pass catchers at both the wide receiver and tight end positions failed to elevate the entire unit and give their quarterback reliable options to distribute the ball. The unit did have its moments early during the season, but eventually fizzled out as the year went along.

One of the best ways of illustrating this is by looking at explosive plays — per definition, a play is considered “explosive” when it gains more than 10 yards on the ground or more than 15 through the air — as charted by Sharp Football Stats. As can be seen, the Patriots offense has failed to consistently produce chunk plays over the course of the 2019 season:

Explosive plays (Week 1 — Week 18)
Sharp Football Stats

The numbers shown here do not look all that bad, especially when it comes to passing the football: between Week 1 and their playoff exit on wild card weekend, the Patriots’ aerial offense actually had the 13th highest rate of plays that gained more than 15 yards (9.5%). The rushing offense, meanwhile, struggled in the league-wide comparison and ranked only 21st overall even though its big-play rate was actually higher (10.3%).

This graphic only tells one part of the story, though. As noted above, the Patriots’ offense started the year well when it came to moving the ball through the air before falling apart down the stretch. The numbers collected before and after New England’s Week 10 bye are therefore more reflective of how the passing offense developed over the course of the season and how it lacked the ability to produce big plays when it needed it the most:

Explosive plays (Week 1 — Week 10)
Sharp Football Stats
Explosive plays (Week 11 — Week 18)
Sharp Football Stats

As can be seen, the Patriots’ fortunes in terms of explosive productivity changed over the second half of their season: while their ground game almost doubled its big play percentage from 7.1% to 14.0%, the passing attack’s decreased from 10.4% down to 8.5%. New England’s offense was still the ninth most explosive between Week 11 and Week 18, but that was mostly due to the fact that the running game found its groove after the bye.

The reasons for this development when focusing simply on the passing game can be found in the personnel surrounding Tom Brady. Gone were potential big-play wide receivers Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon, who were both released in light of off-field trouble, while the remaining players were unable to pick up the slack: Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu had to deal with injuries, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers went through rookie growing pains, and neither Phillip Dorsett nor the Patriots’ tight ends were able to step up.

Opposing defenses consequently started to focus on the only two reliable pass catchers — Edelman and running back James White — while the other members of the Patriots’ offense simply failed to take advantage of their opportunities. The personnel turnover, inexperience and bad injury luck that led to this eventually resulted in a downfield passing attack that not even the greatest quarterback to ever set foot on the gridiron could elevate. New England’s personnel, for one reason or another, simply was insufficient.

Heading towards the 2020 season, the Patriots therefore might feel the need to address this issue and try to get better when it comes to producing big plays. The physical as well as mental development/recovery of the returning group of skill position players — Edelman, Sanu, Harry and Meyers at wide receiver; Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo at tight end — and the free agency acquisition of Damiere Byrd might help, but New England could also take to the draft in order to add some explosive upside to its passing offense.

Luckily for the Patriots, this year’s group of prospects offers some enticing talent in this area as this following list of notable downfield pass catchers that averaged more than 12.0 yards per reception during the 2019 season illustrates:

2020 NFL draft: Notable downfield receivers

Player Position School Receptions Receiving Yards Receiving Touchdowns Yards per Reception
Player Position School Receptions Receiving Yards Receiving Touchdowns Yards per Reception
CeeDee Lamb WR Oklahoma 62 1,327 14 21.4
Tee Higgins WR Clemson 59 1,167 13 19.8
Henry Ruggs III WR Alabama 40 746 7 18.7
John Hightower WR Boise State 51 943 8 18.5
Brandon Aiyuk WR Arizona State 65 1,192 8 18.3
Antonio Gandy-Golden WR Liberty 79 1,396 10 17.7
Gabriel Davis WR Central Florida 72 1,241 12 17.2
Jauan Jennings WR Tennessee 59 969 8 16.4
K.J. Hamler WR Penn State 56 904 8 16.1
Hunter Bryant TE Washington 52 825 3 15.9
Chase Claypool WR Notre Dame 66 1,037 13 15.7
Denzel Mims WR Baylor 66 1,020 12 15.5
Harrison Bryant TE Florida Atlantic 65 1,004 7 15.4
Tyler Johnson WR Minnesota 86 1,318 13 15.3
Jerry Jeudy WR Alabama 77 1,163 10 15.1
Collin Johnson WR Texas 38 559 3 14.7
Devin Asiasi TE UCLA 44 641 4 14.6
Isaiah Coulter WR Rhode Island 72 1,039 8 14.4
Jalen Reagor WR Texas Christian 43 611 5 14.2
Justin Jefferson WR LSU 111 1,540 18 13.9
Laviska Shenault Jr. WR Colorado 56 764 4 13.6
Brycen Hopkins TE Purdue 61 830 7 13.6
Van Jefferson WR Florida 49 657 6 13.4
Charlie Taumoepeau TE Portland State 36 474 2 13.2
Adam Trautman TE Dayton 70 916 14 13.1
Josiah Deguara TE Cincinnati 39 504 7 12.9
Donovan Peoples-Jones WR Michigan 34 438 6 12.9
Michael Pittman Jr. WR USC 101 1,275 11 12.6
Thaddeus Moss TE LSU 47 570 4 12.1
Cole Kmet TE Notre Dame 43 515 6 12.0
2019 receiving numbers, ranked by yards per reception (min. 12.0).

While that is a lot of information to comprehend, the essential gist of the list is as follows:

1.) There have been a lot of players who have served as viable deep-field targets for their respective teams last year.

2.) While potential top-10 pick CeeDee Lamb out of Oklahoma is the number one name on the list after averaging 21.4 yards per catch, there are plenty of later-round targets who have shown considerable big-play potential in 2019 as well.

What does this mean for the Patriots? This year’s draft offers a deep group of potential field-stretchers and explosive athletes — something that New England certainly lacked in 2019. After all, only three players that were on the receiving end of more than 10 passes over the course of the season finished with an average of 12+ yards per catch: Josh Gordon (14.4), Jakobi Meyers (13.8) and Phillip Dorsett (13.4). Of course, only Meyers is still with the team heading towards the 2020 season.

New England’s other prominent pass catchers that are currently on the roster all proved themselves incapable of consistently stretching the field last season: Julian Edelman averaged a solid 11.1 yards per reception in 2019 — perfectly in line with his pre-2019 career average of 11.1 — while N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu checked in at only 9.0 and 8.1, respectively. Edelman, Harry and Sanu were the Patriots’ top-three at the wide receiver position by the end of last year, but were not able to consistently challenge teams deep.

Adding one of the players listed above via the draft could help address this issue, or at least give teams something to worry about over the top to take some attention away from the underneath portions of the field.

Of course, drawing correlations from college production to the NFL can be difficult: the game is played a different speed, the coverages and offenses themselves are more complex, and press-man coverage is more of an obstacle than it is at the college level. That said, Bleeding Green Nation’s Jonny Page recently broke down the yards-per-reception leaders in the NFL in 2019, and found that all of the top-16 players registered at least one season in college during which they averaged at least 15.0 yards per reception.

Not all of the prospects listed above can offer that, but it does still show that decent college production can be a foundation for similar success at the next level. The Patriots, of course, also are in dire need of some success in this area. Looking to the draft to bolster the receiving corps at the wideout and tight end positions therefore seems to be the smart thing to do.