The Tennessee Titans made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason on Sunday, swinging a trade with the Atlanta Falcons to acquire perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones. One of the most prolific pass catchers of his era, Jones was brought aboard to help the Titans get over the hump after five straight winning seasons but only a 3-3 postseason record.
The trade might shift the power balance in the AFC in Tennessee’s favor, but it does not change all too much from the New England Patriots’ perspective — at least as far as players they will or will not face are concerned. They have both the Titans and the Falcons on their 2021 regular season schedule, and would therefore have faced Jones even if he had not been traded.
Still, with him in the news, let’s take a closer look at the pass catchers New England will face this season, and who the top players on their schedule are.
(Note: Players are listed alphabetically and running backs are excluded)
WR Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers: The Patriots secondary may have rendered him ineffective last year — he caught 5 passes for 48 yards in a 45-0 loss — but Allen is still a premiere pass catcher in the NFL. He continues to project as a top target for second-year quarterback Justin Herbert this season.
WR Odell Beckham Jr, Cleveland Browns: Beckham will be more than a year removed from a torn ACL when the Patriots host the Browns in Week 10. If fully recovered at that point, he certainly will be a challenging player to defend.
WR A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans: Brown might be one of the big winners of the Julio Jones trade. With Jones lining up alongside him, and with Derrick Henry in the backfield, the former first-round draft pick could see more favorable opportunities coming his way.
WR Brandin Cooks, Houston Texans: Even though the Texans’ quarterback situation remains one big question mark, the fact is that Cooks continues to be an ultra-productive wide receiver. Coming off the fifth 1,000-yard season in his seven-year career, he projects as Houston’s number one pass catcher — especially following Will Fuller’s departure to Miami.
WR Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys: The former first-round draft pick has had limited success against New England in the past, catching just 3 passes for 28 yards and a touchdown in two losses. That said, his productivity alone shows how dangerous he can be: he has put up at least 1,000 receiving yards in five of six seasons.
WR Corey Davis, New York Jets: Davis had a quiet first three seasons in Tennessee before breaking out in 2020. Now a Jet, the high-priced free agent projects as the top receiving option in the team’s rebuilt passing offense.
WR Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills: Diggs proved to be a godsend to the Bills offense last year, and his arrival played a pivotal role in quarterback Josh Allen’s development. New England experienced this first-hand: in two games against their AFC East rivals, Diggs caught 15 passes for 237 yards and 3 touchdowns.
WR Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The world champions’ most productive pass catcher in 2020, and Tom Brady’s most targeted receiver, Evans has set a new career-high with 13 touchdown receptions. He also gained 1,000+ yards for the seventh straight year. Needless to say that he is a serious weapon for the greatest quarterback of all time.
WR Will Fuller V, Miami Dolphins: The Patriots will only have to face Will Fuller once this year given that he remains suspended for the season opener. Nonetheless, he has proven himself a serious big-play weapon in Houston. If quarterback Tua Tagovailoa takes a second-year jump he could be the same in Miami.
WR Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: If Mike Evans is the Buccaneers’ WR1A, Godwin is their WR1B. A serious deep threat capable of playing all over the formation, the youngster has led the team in receiving yards during its postseason run.
TE Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gronkowski may no longer be the same game-changing present he was during his heyday in New England, but he is still a dangerous player capable of exploiting mismatches. Look no further than February’s Super Bowl when he caught two touchdowns and thoroughly outplayed first-team All-Pro Travis Kelce.
WR Julio Jones, Tennessee Titans: Even though Jones is already in his 30s and has struggled with injury in 2020, he is still an elite wide receiver and a player capable of changing the fortunes of an offense. Despite coming off his least productive season since 2013 his blend of size, speed, experience and technique is rare, and makes him a challenging player for opposing defensive backs even at age 32.
WR CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys: Even though he did not have an offseason and was forced to play without starting quarterback Dak Prescott for most of the season, Lamb still put up some solid numbers as a rookie: catching 74 passes for 935 yards and 5 touchdowns, he showed his immense talent. He should only get better in 2021.
WR Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns: Landry may have had a comparatively quiet season by his standards last year, but he is still among the NFL’s better pass catchers — one the Patriots have not always successfully contained. In nine games as a Dolphin and Brown he has registered 60 catches for 634 yards and 3 scores versus New England.
WR D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers: The Panthers will only go as far as Sam Darnold allows them to, but they do have some serious wide receiver talent in the form of D.J. Moore. Playing in an offense with Christian McCaffrey and rookie wideout Terrace Marshall Jr, Moore posting another 1,000-yard season would not be a surprise despite the questions at the quarterback position.
WR DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins made some serious investments at wide receiver this offseason, but they also still have their top wideout of the past few years in the fold. DeVante Parker versus Stephon Gilmore again projects as a fun matchup this season.
TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons: He may be a rookie, but Kyle Pitts is one of the most complete players at any skill position to enter the league in recent years. As such, he should already be treated as a legitimate weapon in the Falcons’ arsenal. Just like...
WR Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons: With Julio Jones gone, Ridley is now the clear-cut number one wide receiver for quarterback Matt Ryan. Coming off the most productive season of his career, he is the logical heir to Jones’ role within the Atlanta offense.
TE Tim Tebow, Jacksonville Jaguars: Just kidding.
WR Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints: Replacing Drew Brees will be a big challenge for the Saints, but they have one of the league’s most productive wide receivers to help any quarterback out. He did struggle with injuries last year and posted the least productive season of his career, but he is still one of the elite pass catchers in the NFL today.
WR Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have some serious talent in their wide receiver room, with Waddle being added to the mix to serve as a top-three weapon alongside Will Fuller and DeVante Parker. While it remains to be seen how effective he will be as a rookie, his talent and upside cannot be denied.
As can be seen, the Patriots will face some serious receiving talent during the upcoming regular season. While not every team on their schedule has the same immense quality as the Buccaneers or even the Dolphins, New England’s defensive backfield will be challenged time and again in 2021.
Luckily, the it still projects as one of the best in the football. Stephon Gilmore remains a part of the group coming off a challenging season, while J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips form as good a starting unit around him as any in the league. Add a vastly improved front-seven and you should see some enticing battles this year between the Patriots’ defense and the elite pass catchers it is scheduled to face.