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2021 Patriots draft profile: Could Nico Collins replace N’Keal Harry in the New England offense?

Related: Patriots draft profile: Kellen Mond checks a lot of boxes for New England

Iowa v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The New England Patriots invested considerable resources in their wide receiver position this offseason, signing both Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne to multi-year free agency contracts. But while the two veterans are projected to play prominent roles on an offense also featuring tight end additions Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, the Patriots could benefit from adding some cheap developmental talent to the group.

While, yes, N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski and especially Jakobi Meyers are just that, their long-term outlook remains uncertain despite some flashes in the past. Harry’s spot in particular appears to be in question after rumors that the Patriots might be looking to move on from the former first-rounder via trade.

Adding all of this up, and another wide receiver being added via the draft would not come as a surprise after New England did not do that last year.

Name: Nico Collins

Position: Wide receiver

School: Michigan (Senior)

Opening day age: 22

2020 stats: N/A (opt-out)

2019 stats: 12 games (10 starts); 66 targets, 37 catches, 729 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns

Size: 6041, 215 lbs, 78 1/2 wingspan, 34 1/8 arm, 9 3/8 hand

Workout numbers: 4.45 40-yard dash, 37 1/2 vertical jump, 10’5” broad jump, 4.32 short shuttle, 6.79 3-cone drill, 14 bench press

Expected round: 3rd

Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A

Strengths: Collins is a classic X-receiver who offers an intriguing mix of size and vertical speed that allows him to challenge defenses deep. His production in two seasons as a starter for the Wolverines shows all that: despite playing in a bad passing offense he still caught 75 passes for 13 touchdowns and 1,361 yards — an impressive average of 18.1 yards per reception that shows his potential of becoming a big-play threat at the next level.

Collins has been able to produce those numbers not just due to his measurements, but his understanding of how to use them. He has shown an ability to get physical at the catch point and win contested situations. He uses his size well to shield off defenders and also offers a strong set of hands and the ability to time his jumps well and high-point throws. Passes outside of his frame do not present a problem.

In general, he knows how to plug a ball out of mid-air and has good hand-eye coordination skills. He made the difficult-to-execute back-shoulder throws look easy. Collins also has adequate agility at the stem and top of his routes to exercise cuts and shake free from defenders. Being underutilized at Michigan, there could be more to his game than what his college tape shows.

Weaknesses: Collins comes with questions about his ability to create space at the next level, especially when going up against press-man cornerbacks who get their hands on him early into his routes: even though he offers frame and power he has been unable to consistently outmuscle defenders and has been rerouted too often than one would like to see out of a wide receiver about to enter the NFL.

Adding to this is a lack of creativity as a route runner which in turn limits Collins’ upside as a possession-type receiver in the underneath area of the field. Despite his speed and physicality, he has shown little after the catch and is not dynamic enough to run away from tacklers — rather trying to power through them than evade their takedown attempts.

Despite his imposing size Collins also has been an inconsistent blocker in the running game. He oftentimes does not stand defenders up as well as he should, which means he will have to get more reliable in order to regularly see the field on early downs. While this does not make or break a receiver at the next level, it is something teams like the Patriots place a high value on.

Why the Patriots? When New England added N’Keal Harry in the first round in 2019, the team was hoping that his size and physicality would make him a viable target outside the numbers and in the red zone. He has not yet developed into this kind of receiver, but if the Patriots feel good about having this general type within their offense bringing Collins on board would make sense. A taller receiver with an intriguing combination of size and speed, the 22-year-old offers what the team thought Harry would also bring to the table. Also: his 3-cone drill.

Why not the Patriots? Two seasons in the Harry experiment looks like a failure, but the team might not be ready to bring his replacement on board just yet. The former first-rounder still has tools to work with and might benefit from playing in an offense with more all-around talent — one that could use him according to his strengths even if it means still only playing a package specific role. Would the less experienced Collins really be an upgrade with Harry still under contract for two more seasons?

What would be his role in New England in 2021? Even with Julian Edelman retired, the Patriots’ starting wide receiver positions seem to be pretty much set: Nelson Agholor will be the top perimeter option with Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers the primary interior weapons alongside the two recently acquired tight ends. With Collins more of a deep outside target than Bourne and Meyers, he would likely play a complementary role behind Agholor and be used as a matchup-specific target on obvious passing downs and in the red area.

What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? While Agholor will likely still be around in 2022, the Patriots could groom Collins to be his eventual replacement — giving him more high-profile snaps and growing his responsibilities as an X-receiver in New England’s offense. Ideally, he will be ready to serve as a starting perimeter target in case Agholor is not retained after his contract expires.

Does he have positional versatility? Even though Collins lined up both on the inside and outside at Michigan, his versatility is somewhat limited by his limited creativity as a route runner. At the next level, he will likely best be suited in a specific role rather than becoming a hybrid X/Z option like Nelson Agholor or Kendrick Bourne.

What is his special teams value? Using N’Keal Harry as a comparison, Collins should not be expected to have much of an impact in the kicking game upon joining the NFL. While he could theoretically be used as an up-man on kickoff returns, it seems more likely that he will not see regular action in the game’s third phase.

Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? If selected in his expected range, Collins would be a lock to make New England’s roster alongside fellow wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. He would, however, compete for playing time on the outside against Agholor as well as Kristian Wilkerson and Devin Smith. If N’Keal Harry is still around even if Collins gets added, he too would compete for snaps (and a roster spot) versus the rookie.

Verdict: Collins is the closest thing to N’Keal Harry the Patriots might find in this year’s draft. His fate might therefore be tied to that of the former first-round selection: in case the Harry trade rumors do not turn out to be accurate — which seems likely given his contract structure — New England might decide against adding a receiver with that type of skillset early in the draft. That said, Collins’ potential to turn into the player Harry was meant to be cannot be denied.