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Patriots free agency analysis: Nelson Agholor adds some much-needed explosiveness to New England’s passing game

Related: Contract details show Patriots are paying Nelson Agholor to be a starting wide receiver

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Las Vegas Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While Cam Newton had to shoulder most of the blame for the New England Patriots’ passing woes in 2020, and did play a sizable role in them, he was not the only culprit. The Patriots’ skill position talent also left much to be desired, with neither the wide receiver nor the tight end positions providing consistent help for the newly-signed starting quarterback.

Upgrading the talent around him and/or a potential developmental addition later during the offseason was therefore high up on the team’s free agency priorities. It showed: New England did not only sign the top-two tight ends available in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, it also added wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor. Let’s take a closer look at the latter now.

Hard facts

Name: Nelson Agholor

Position: Wide receiver

Opening day age: 28

Size: 6-foot-0, 200 pounds

Contract: 2 years, $22 million ($11 million guaranteed)


After three impressive seasons at USC, Agholor decided to forgo his 2015 senior season in order to enter the NFL draft. The decision was a good one as he heard his name called in the first round when the Philadelphia Eagles made him the 20th overall player and fourth wide receiver to come off the board. Agholor saw prominent playing time right away, and over the next few seasons developed into a productive member of the Eagles’ passing offense and top-two option at the wide receiver position.

Over his five years with the Eagles — Philadelphia opted to exercise the fifth-year option in his rookie pact — Agholor appeared in a combined 76 regular season and playoff games and caught 243 passes for 2,720 yards and 18 touchdowns. Unfortunately, however, he produced a sub-par season while playing for a new contract in 2019: Agholor posted his worst receiving numbers since his second year in the league, and eventually had to sign a one-year, minimum-salary free agency deal with the Las Vegas Raiders.

Joining the Raiders proved to be a smart decision, though. While the team did have some impressive receiving talent on its roster, Agholor was able to emerge as a starter-level wideout and finish with 48 catches for 896 yards and eight touchdowns. Among the NFL’s 107 players who caught more than 40 passes in 2020, no one had a higher yards-per-catch average than Agholor’s 18.7. In turn, he set himself up nicely for another trip to free agency.

Patriots preview

What is his projected role in New England? The Patriots’ aerial offense lacked explosiveness in 2020, and Agholor offers just that. He has the speed to challenge defenses on vertical routes, which in turn could allow New England free up the intermediate parts of the field, and also should help with the outside-the-numbers passing game. A viable deep threat that has experience playing both on the perimeter and inside the formation, he is projected to move between the Z- and X-receiver roles depending on the play call.

Where does he fit on the wide receiver depth chart? Before adding Agholor and Kendrick Bourne early during the legal tampering period, the Patriots had nine wide receivers under contract. None of them will challenge Agholor’s standing on the team in 2021: he is a top-three wide receiver option and the number one deep-field receiver on the roster. Having him in the fold should make things easier for third-year men Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry, who can take on more limited roles better suited to their skillsets.

Does he have positional versatility? Agholor can play numerous wide receiver alignments, and his usage over the course of his career reflects this: the Eagles used him in the slot on 52.3 percent of his snaps compared to 47.7 on the outside, while the Raiders employed him on the perimeter on 70.2 percent of the time versus 29.8 inside. New England likes to move its wideouts around as well, so seeing him not be confined to one role (either the X or the Z) should be expected.

What is his special teams value? Even though he has the skillset to possibly be used in the return game as well, Agholor’s special teams value and experience are limited. In total, he has just 25 kicking game snaps on his career résumé — all on the punt and kickoff return squads — as well as eight returns: he ran back five kickoffs in 2016 for an average of 18.4 yards per attempt as well as three punts during the 2018 and 2019 seasons for 2.3 yards a runback. New England using him in a prominent special teams role is probably not in the cards for him.

What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? While not carrying the biggest total contract value handed out by the Patriots so far in free agency, Agholor is the owner of the biggest cap hit for 2021: his two-year pact will count $7 million against the team’s books, more than any other wide receiver on the roster. In league-wide comparison, however, he still only carries the 27th highest cap number for a wideout.

What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Even with Agholor signed to a two-year pact — one that allows the Patriots to part ways relatively easily next offseason — New England should be in the market for additional help at the wide receiver position come draft time. With the exception of Jakobi Meyers, after all, the younger wideouts on the roster have all underwhelmed so far during their respective careers in New England. The pipeline needs to be kept open even with Agholor and Kendrick Bourne now part of the mix as well.

One-sentence verdict: Going after Agholor rather than other big-name wide receivers available shows that the Patriots are confident his 2020 season was no fluke and that he can play a productive role in their offense.


How would you grade the Patriots’ decision to sign Nelson Agholor?

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