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2021 Patriots positional preview: Wide Receivers

Related: Patriots positional preview: Quarterbacks

NFL: New England Patriots Minicamp Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots’ receiving corps was an abject disaster in 2020. You all remember so we’ll spare you the details, but if there is a single positive that came out of a season full of grim receiver play, it’s the fact that the team was almost forced to make upgrades.

Two free agents and $48.5 million later, New England’s wide receiver room is expected to be more well rounded and competitive than it has been in a couple of seasons. With some newfound talent and the continued development of young players, there is expected to be some great competition for the final few spots.

Jakobi Meyers

Despite the struggles the Patriots had in their wide receiver room last year, they found a diamond in the rough with second-year undrafted wideout Jakobi Meyers. After an injury in training camp, Meyers found himself looking up at the depth chart for the first few weeks of the 2020 season. However, after a breakout game in New York on Monday Night Football where he exploded for 12 catches and 158 yards, he never looked back.

Meyers led the team with 59 catches for 729 yards, finding most of his success out of the Z spot. A consistent chain mover that made plays over the middle of the field, Meyers became quarterback Cam Newton’s go-to receiver.

Even with the amount of money the Patriots spent improving their tight ends and adding Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, Meyers has an opportunity to emerge as the Patriots’ No. 1 guy in 2021.

Kendrick Bourne

One of the two “big money” signings the Patriots made at the position this offseason, Bourne brings a combination of route-running and quickness to the position. There’s no question the Patriots have lacked play-making ability at the position for the last two seasons, however, Bourne should be able to step in and make a big impact in 2021.

The big issue at receiver since mid-2019 has been a lack of separation, especially in the red area. Bourne was a red-zone freak in 2020 hauling in 9 catches on 11 attempts for three touchdowns. He’s a tough runner that can make plays after the catch due to his elusiveness and speed with the ball in his hands. Bourne will likely see time in the slot as well as the Y for New England and should be a huge addition for the Patriots in 2021.

Nelson Agholor

The Patriots clearly went into free agency with a plan and an idea of which direction wanted to head in as a football team. Out of all the Day 1 signings by the Patriots, Agholor’s may have been the most-shocking, mainly due to the two-year, $24 million dollar contract New England gave him. However, Agholor brings a lot of speed and an outside presence to the group that the Patriots have lacked for years.

Plagued by drop issues in Philadelphia, Agholor blossomed with a change of scenery in Las Vegas. He’s coming off a career year where he racked up 48 catches for 896 yards and 8 touchdowns, Agholor will be one of the go-to receivers for Cam Newton or Mac Jones in 2021. Possessing the speed to stretch the field and the ability to make plays on the outside, and with the Patriots set to have two tight ends on the field for the majority of the game, Agholor will share snaps with Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne and has a real chance to be one of the unsung heroes for the Patriots offense.

N’Keal Harry

N’Keal Harry has become one of the most polarizing players in New England, and he’s done so for all of the wrong reasons. The 2019 first-round pick has only managed 45 receptions in 21 career games, a number that has been surpassed by nine receivers that were selected after him. In other words, it’s make-or-break for N’Keal Harry in 2021.

So how can Harry turn things around? It starts with a more specific role. Through his two seasons the Patriots have tasked Harry with doing just about everything, from working the boundary as a possession receiver to running end arounds from the slot, he’s been asked to do a little too much.

That statement won’t sit well with some, who believe if he can’t be a “Prototypical Patriot” then they should just move on, but the fact of the matter is, if the Patriots are ever going to get over their shortcomings in the draft it’s going to be by adapting to the talent and not forcing the talent to adapt to the team. There is still some hope for both sides if Harry and his offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can ever get on the same page.

Gunner Olszewski

Coming off an All-Pro season as a punt returner, Gunner Olszewski will look to continue to make strides as a receiver and earn time in the Patriots revamped offense. Olszewski, who made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2019, will see most of his time as a punt returner in 2021. However, he has looked solid as a receiver this spring as the Patriots look for “Life after Julian Edelman” out of the slot. Remember how No. 11 started to make a name for himself around here?

Tre Nixon

Having yet to play a single snap of NFL football, there are already high expectations of rookie seventh-round pick Tre Nixon. He was handpicked by football guru and Bill Belichick’s close confidant, Ernie Adams after all.

The former UCF burner had an up and down college career that began as a four-star recruit at Ole Miss. After a freshman season sitting behind future pro bowlers DK Metcalf and A.J. Brown, Nixon decided to pack his bags and head to UCF where he made an immediate impact for Josh Heupel’s offense. 89 receptions for 1,392 yards and 11 touchdowns later, Nixon was set up to make a name for himself in the loaded 2021 wide receiver class, but unfortunately, that never happened.

An injury in the season opener forced him to miss seven games, when he returned to the lineup, he looked to be a shell of himself. The dramatic drop in production coincided with a dramatic drop in draft stock.

There are two ways of viewing Nixon’s potential. You could say 2020 was an outlier, and his injury could have just been a minor setback on his track to becoming a successful NFL receiver. You could also argue that his production in 2018 and 2019 were results of a dynamic Josh Heupel offense that schemed receivers open and took a ton of chances down the field, making Nixon’s role much more important at UCF than it will be with the Patriots. Nixon will have an opportunity to prove one of those theories right with a full offseason of work.

Isaiah Zuber

Would you believe me if I told you that Isaiah Zuber was the second most efficient receiver on the Patriots last season? Yes? Oh, well good, because Zuber trailed only Gunner Olszewski in efficiency rating out of the 2020 group of receivers.

Making the most of his limited opportunities in 2020, Zuber averaged 12.5 yards per his four total touches. In addition to his —limited— production, he’s received glowing reviews from coaches, teammates, and media members alike throughout his 13 months in a Patriots uniform. His hard working attitude and pension to push the teams top defenders at practice have helped him stand out during the week, and he now has an opportunity to do so in games this preseason.

Though two wide receivers were signed to improve the room, there is still a spot worth fighting for towards the bottom of the depth chart, and Isaiah Zuber has a chance to steal it.

Devin Smith

It’s very hard to make an NFL roster when you only excel at doing one thing, a fact that is especially true under teams that are led by Bill Belichick. Bad news for Devin Smith who by all accounts is a phenomenal deep threat, but struggles doing just about everything else.

There could be a spot for Smith on the newly expanded practice squad; however. A specialized receiver that can push the defenders at practice holds a lot more value than just any old body. Smith has a skillset conducive to pushing the starters everyday at practice. There is value in keeping him around.

Kristian Wilkerson

Wilkerson might be the best athlete in the wide receiver room. His 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame pairs well with his 10-foot 8-inch broad jump, 39.5-inch vertical, and 4.5-second 40-yard dash. Unfortunately for him, his lack of experience won’t help him steal a spot.

What could help him make the roster is using that athleticism on special teams and earning a spot that way. If he doesn’t he would risk becoming another guy in the room without a specialized skill set that can set him apart. As we pointed out in the entry above, having a player who can really push your starters on the practice squad is an invaluable commodity in today’s NFL. Wilkerson would need to find a way in doing that for him to grab a roster spot.

Marvin Hall

Don’t let Marvin Hall get hot. The former Falcon, Lion, and Brown, has had an interesting path through the NFL where his talent has kept him alive. The speedster (4.28 40-yard dash) made just 25 catches in his college career, but has squeaked his way onto NFL rosters by showcasing speed and the ability to separate vertically. Unfortunately for him, he’s competing with not one but two guys for a roster spot that is seemingly already wrapped up.

Nelson Agholor is the Patriots’ field stretcher, and they will only carry one on the roster. That leaves Hall fighting for a practice squad job with Devin Smith, who already has half a season under his belt in New England’s system. It’s going to be an uphill battle for Hall, but throughout his career he’s conquered the obstacles set in front of him.

Can someone claim a sixth WR roster spot?

It’s going to be tough for anyone currently on the roster to be kept on as the sixth wide receiver. Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, and Nelson Agholor are all virtual locks if they stay healthy. Gunner Olszewski is coming off of an All-Pro punt returner season and as mentioned before, happened to be the most efficient wide receiver in New England last season, and despite his struggles, N’Keal Harry is a former first round pick who has yet to see a full offseason in New England. He’s making this team unless they can swing him in a trade.

When you factor in the NFL’s new rules that allow practice squad call ups and the insanely competitive roster that Bill Belichick and company have built, the only way a sixth receiver makes the 53 is if he comes from outside the organization.

Who will take a leap?

The Patriots wide receiver core got better in the off-season, however, it’s hard to look past Jakobi Meyers taking another big leap as a receiver in 2021. After the second-year undrafted free agent led the team in catches and yards, Meyers really started to blossom and learn how to play the position on a week-to-week basis last year. His route running and ability to find soft spots of the defense has continued to improve and even with the additions of Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Bourne and Agholor, Meyers should take another big leap and be one of the go-to targets for the Patriots in 2021.

When will the team find their best lineups?

It took the Patriots six weeks to figure out that Jakobi Meyers was their best receiver. That was on a roster made up of fourth and fifth string receivers. With a much more competitive room in 2021, how long will it take Josh McDaniels to find the best rotation?

It shouldn’t take long, as they know what they have in the players that have been in their system and signed a couple of free agents to play in specific roles. Agholor is your field stretcher, Bourne and Meyers are versatile receivers that thrive in the intermediate areas of the field. Harry was born to use his size in short yardage situations as well as the red area, and Olszewski is a quick underneath guy that can fill in on an irregular basis. This year they can begin with a plan, instead of hoping one finds them.

What does the future look like at the position?

It’s tough to navigate the future when you know so little about the present. The expected top four receivers are anything but locks to stay on the roster past 2022. Jakobi Meyers will become a restricted free agent this summer, and if all goes to plan he’ll command a second round tender. Nelson Agholor and N’Keal Harry (if his option is denied) will be free agents following the 2022 season. That leaves Kendrick Bourne, whose contract expires after the 2023 season, as the man signed on for the longest period of time. Of course he has yet to play a down for the team, so nobody knows if he will even last that long. The future at the wide receiver position continues to look uncertain, albeit a much more promising uncertainty.