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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Nelson Agholor projects as New England’s WR1

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: QB Mac Jones

Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series kicks continues with wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

Hard facts

Name: Nelson Agholor

Position: Wide receiver

Jersey number: 13

Opening day age: 28

Size: 6-foot-0, 200 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? 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 minimum-salary deal with the Las Vegas Raiders as a free agent.

What did his 2020 season look like? As mentioned above, Agholor’s contract year was not kind to him and he therefore entered unrestricted free agency with little momentum on his side. In fact, the former first-round draft pick remained on the open market for an entire week before the Raiders finally brought him aboard. Agholor agreed to join the team on a one-year, $1.05 million contract. There was no doubt about what this deal was, though: it was a “prove it”-type deal.

Prove it Agholor did. Despite Las Vegas already have some impressive receiving talent on its roster already, the veteran was able to emerge as a starter-level wideout. Appearing in all 16 games during the regular season primarily as a perimeter target, he was on the field for 731 of a possible 1,083 offensive snaps (67.5%) — leading all of the team’s wide receivers. His playing time share was not the only thing impressive about his 2020 season, though: Agholor also emerged as a bona fide deep threat.

Serving as a top-tier receiving option alongside tight end Darren Waller and fellow wideout Hunter Renfrow, Agholor saw 82 passes thrown his way. He ended up catching 48 of them for a total of 896 yards as well as 8 touchdowns — ranking second behind Waller in the latter two categories. 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.

The decision to join Las Vegas therefore turned out to be a pretty smart one for him, especially considering that he ended up receiving a two-year contract from the Patriots in March with a total value of $22 million. Agholor bet on himself by joining the Raiders on a minimum-level contract, and delivered. Sure, he may not have played on a Pro Bowl level but he worked well within the role he was given and thus able to carve out a sizable role within the team’s aerial attack.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? 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.

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.

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 salary cap situation? As mentioned above, Agholor signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the Patriots in free agency. Less than a third of that total value will count against the team’s books in 2021, though. Agholor carries a salary cap hit of $7 million that can be broken down as follows: his $1 million salary and $5 million signing bonus proration are fully guaranteed, while a $1 million roster bonus is considered likely to be earned.

What is his roster outlook? Given his contract structure and projected role, Agholor is a lock to make New England’s roster this year. While it remains to be seen how exactly he will be used by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the expectation is that he will be prominently featured within the Patriots’ aerial attack as a WR1-type target alongside tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry as well as fellow wideouts Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry.