There is no sugar-coating it: the New England Patriots fielded arguably the worst skill position group in football last season. A lack of talent at the wide receiver position, especially the perimeter, played a big role in this and contributed to the team’s lackluster performance in the passing game.
The Patriots’ primary outside targets — Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry — combined to catch 80 passes for 913 yards and 3 touchdowns. What would have been solid production for one player, certainly is not for two; that is especially true if those two are asked to play starter-level roles on a week-to-week basis. New England obviously noticed this as well, and brought some help aboard in free agency.
Will Nelson Agholor’s arrival help turn the unit’s fortunes around, especially at the X-spot?
That remains to be seen but before trying to find out who has the best chances at joining the veteran on the roster, a quick refresher: basically speaking, the X-receiver is a split end lining up on the weak/non-tight end side of the formation and normally plays on the line of scrimmage and without the ability to go into any sort of pre-game motion (as opposed to the off-the-line receiver spots).
This role and its responsibilities is oftentimes shared by a group of wideouts in New England, but the team generally has players fitting the prototypical X-receiver profile on its roster: from Damiere Byrd, to Chris Hogan, to Brandin Cooks all the way back to Randy Moss. With that said, let’s take a look at this year’s group to find out who will try to follow into their footsteps this year.
WR N’Keal Harry, WR Tre Nixon, WR Kristian Wilkerson, WR Marvin Hall, WR Devin Smith, WR Devin Ross
Nelson Agholor is obviously not listed here given that he is not just a lock to make the roster, but also expected to play a considerable role within the Patriots’ passing attack. While it remains to be seen how he will be used — he has the versatility to align not just at the X-position but to move to the Z/slot spots as well — there is no denying he will be a starter-level member of New England’s offense this year.
The others, on the other hand, will be fighting for roles and roster spots.
N’Keal Harry is the biggest name among them. Harry, who has been the subject of trade rumors throughout the offseason, has not lived up to his first-round pedigree in two seasons as a Patriot; he will be facing a make-or-break season if not moved to another team. Tre Nixon, Kristian Wilkerson, Marvin Hall, Devin Smith and Devin Ross will have to convince the team to keep them over other options such as a fourth tight end or one of New England’s Z-receivers.
The competition will therefore not only be among the players listed in the X-receiver group, but also between other positions as well.
The deciding factors
Chemistry with the quarterbacks: You can be an All-Pro talent but if you fail to get on the same page as the Patriots’ quarterback — whether it is Cam Newton, Mac Jones, Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer — you are going to have a bad time. New England’s X-receivers therefore have to read coverages properly to make the right decisions on the team’s option routes, and to subsequently be in the location their passer expects them to be. If receivers can’t develop that chemistry and earn the QB’s trust, they will struggle in New England’s system.
Hands and ball security: Being in the right spot against the right coverage is just one deciding factor — actually catching the football and holding onto it is equally important. N’Keal Harry was up and down in this area last season: he only had two drops on 55 targets, but he also lost a fumble and was the target on two interceptions. As for the other wideouts listed above, they will have to show that they can plug the football out of the air no matter the situation and be smart when running with it.
Contested catch ability: While an X-receiver runs his fair share of slants and other short to medium in-breaking routes in the Patriots’ system, he also needs to be able to get down the field and win one-on-one matchups if need be. Unfortunately, New England did not have player consistently be able to do that since the days of Josh Gordon — players with size capable of timing their jumps perfectly. Will the five named above do it? Harry and Kristian Wilkerson are the top candidates based on measurement, with the former having shown some ability to use his frame to box out defenders in the air.
Physicality and technique: Given the Patriots’ usage of timing patterns, their pass catchers regularly face their fair share of press-man coverage. Wide receivers being able to properly disengage and get past defensive backs is therefore key, so they will have to show the right amount of physicality and technique on the line of scrimmage to win their one-on-one battles whenever they face them — something New England’s wide receivers had some major issues with last year. Luckily, the group will get a good trial-run in training camp considering the talent of New England’s secondary.
Positional versatility: New England puts a premium on versatility, and the wide receiver position is no different: the team’s current receiving corps features multiple players capable of aligning in more than one spot. The aforementioned Nelson Agholor, for example, has played both inside and outside the formation throughout his career — something that is also true for Z-receivers such as Kendrick Bourne or Jakobi Meyers. Being able to follow their lead will also be big for the X-options named above, not only on offense but in the kicking game as well. Marvin Hall, a former kickoff returner, could be a player to watch.
Run blocking: While a wide receiver’s job is to get open and catch the football, to quote former Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, the role itself extends beyond that in the team’s offense: wideouts also need to be capable to sustain their blocks in the running game. If and X-receiver can distinguish himself with his blocking he will certainly improve his chances of making the team, even though the are will not be the deciding factor.
As noted above, Nelson Agholor is secure as the Patriots’ primary X-receiver this season. The question is this Who will join him out of the six other perimeter wideouts?
Based on talent alone, N’Keal Harry should make the cut. His lack of production the last two years is concerning, but his combination of size and athletic ability remains intriguing nonetheless; he also had some positive moments in 2020 before an in-season concussion halted his momentum.
As for the other five competitors, they will likely have to convince the team to be kept over another Z/slot option or a fourth tight end. That will not be easy, though. New England has a pretty solid group at the Z/slot position, with Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski locks or near-locks to make the team; Isaiah Zuber also showed some promise last year. At tight end, Dalton Keene and Matt LaCosse might have more upside than Nixon, Wilkerson and company.
Accordingly, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots keep only one of the X-receivers listed above on their active roster. N’Keal Harry should be seen as the favorite despite his issues and his agent’s recent trade request. If he does not make it for one reason or another, rookie Tre Nixon and veteran Marvin Hall — a potential factor in the kicking game —appear to be next in line.
Given the seemingly superior talent at other positions, however, New England could very well decide to keep no X-wideouts outside of Agholor. Would it be a disappointment, especially in regards to Harry? Yes. Would it be a surprise given who is competing for the X spots? Not really.