The New England Patriots entered free agency with plenty of resources, and with a clear plan in mind to upgrade a struggling passing offense. As a result, they brought in four starting-caliber players: tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were signed to four- and three-year deals, respectively, while wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor were also added to the equation.
The signing of Agholor in particular was a controversial one; not because he joined the Patriots but rather due to the fact that the team gave him a two-year contract with a total value of $22 million. One year after playing on a veteran’s minimum deal with the Las Vegas Raiders, Agholor signed the 22nd richest wide receiver deal on a per-year basis in the NFL.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell criticized the contract as did Anthony Treash of Pro Football Focus. The common theme: the Patriots invested too much in Agholor relative to the production he has had over the course of his career so far.
Here’s the thing, though. NFL teams don’t pay for the past, they pay for the future.
It is why several big names remain unsigned at this stage in free agency. It is also why the Patriots felt comfortable giving Agholor a multi-million dollar deal despite him having averaged “only” 45 catches and 569 receiving yards over the first six years of his career.
Teams also pay relative to the market, by the way. Coming off a career year that saw him catch 48 passes for 896 yards and eight touchdowns, and finish first in yards per reception among the league’s 107 players who caught more than 40 passes, Agholor certainly was a hot name entering free agency.
But regardless of his market, Agholor is still worth every penny: he has the potential to be an instant difference-maker for them and adds a different dimension to what has been a struggling passing attack last season.
Agholor is a high-upside upgrade over Damiere Byrd and Phillip Dorsett
Back in 2017, the Patriots changed their approach at the wide receiver position. After relying on a top-three of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan the previous season, they made two trades to bolster the position group: New England sent a first-round pick to New Orleans to bring Brandin Cooks on board, and later parted ways with quarterback Jacoby Brissett to acquire Phillip Dorsett.
Both Cooks and Dorsett are speedsters on the outside, and gave the Patriots’ passing offense a more vertical element. Dorsett played only a depth role, but Cooks was able to gain over 1,000 receiving yards as a viable deep-field receiver.
The Patriots apparently liked having fast players at the X-receiver position, despite trading Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams after just one season. Dorsett went on to fill this role, with Damiere Byrd taking over in 2020. Like Cooks, both are players with tremendous straight-line speed and an ability to take the top off of defenses.
However, both were also quiet at times during their respective tenures with the club. As a result, the Patriots now decided to try something different: a speedster with the physical edge to win contested situations.
Enter Nelson Agholor (#15).
The Patriots have had speed outside for years in Byrd and Dorsett. But throwing it up to 5'9"/10" isn't quite as reassuring as 6' with a physical edge.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 22, 2021
Agholor thrives when left clean, but he's also more competitive than his predecessors when facing press coverage pic.twitter.com/lRFJlAeO2C
An explosive player capable of getting down the field in a hurry, Agholor is a big-play threat the Patriots have not had in quite some time. In fact, he might be the best and most competitive deep ball receiver New England has had in its lineup since the days of Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski’s heyday.
His ability to outrun defenders is impressive, but so is the fact that the 27-year-old can win against press-man looks — something the Patriots have not had for quite some time now.
Agholor can succeed against man coverage
One of the biggest problems the Patriots offense has had going all the way back to the 2018 season was its wide receivers’ inability to beat tight man coverage. Outside of an aging Julian Edelman, who has dealt with his fair share of injuries the last two seasons, New England did not have a reliable man coverage beater in its ranks.
As a result of this, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had to rely on scheme plays to get his pass catchers open rather than trusting them to win one-on-one situations. Agholor, on the other hand, is a player capable of generating separation even against press-man looks — something the Patriots have not consistently had on their roster since Edelman’s injury woes started early during the 2019 season.
The following collection of plays shows how his combination of speed, short-area elusiveness, sound route running and active hands allows him to create openings down the field:
Agholor's admittedly more explosion than power, but when he's on his game he's a very competitive X with a Z's YAC skills.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 22, 2021
Competitive hand-fighter who makes CBs feel his speed. Also a smart, crafty route runner with the COD ability to slip out of tight coverage pic.twitter.com/5r5OyhKKE0
Agholor offers an ability to create space even when challenged directly into his route, and has both the catch radius and the size to bring passes in even if they are thrown outside of his frame or with a defender challenging him. The first play shown above, from the Raiders’ game in New England last season, is a good example of that.
Aligning as the perimeter target on the near-side of the formation, Agholor went up against J.C. Jackson (#27). While the Patriots defender was able to get a hand on him and keep a good position, the the wideout showed some active arms to shake free and force Jackson to turn his back on him as he began moving towards the sideline.
Jackson quickly recovered, but Agholor was able to gain enough separation to position himself for the reception. Once the pass arrived, he used his body to shield the defender off and reel in the throw.
Agholor is a playmaker
The biggest problem for Agholor during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles was his inconsistency. He certainly was a productive player, but never quite lived up to his status as a former first-round draft pick.
That said, Agholor certainly has “big play” written all over him regardless if faced with man or zone coverage. The Patriots are paying for playmaking ability, and Agholor is able to provide just that thus giving the team a scoring threat in the passing game it simply lacked in 2020.
Vs zone Agholor creates problems with the threat of his speed outside, but he also shows prowess finding and adjusting to soft spots.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 22, 2021
The Super Bowl-winning WR has his inconsistencies. But you pay for play-making ability, and Agholor gives you that every week pic.twitter.com/7PSNy7ealU
Having a player like that on the field forces a defense to adjust. Not only does Agholor’s speed give him an advantage when faced with man coverage looks, he also has the football acumen to identify soft spots versus zone and attack accordingly. This ability to read coverages is something the Patriots certainly covet — it is the basis of their offensive scheme and a reason why adapting to it can be a major challenge.
Having Agholor on the field creates a pick-your-poison dynamic. While teams need to respect his abilities as a deep threat and big-play receiver, they also need to account for the other pass catchers the team added in free agency, namely the aforementioned Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry and Kendrick Bourne.
Agholor by himself may not be as big a threat as other wide receivers in football, but in combination with the other members of New England’s offense could carve out a productive role as either a starting receiver from the X-position or a premier decoy. The latter in itself is not worth $11 million per year, but his playmaking abilities in the grand scheme of things certainly can be.