The 2021 offseason is one of change for the New England Patriots’ wide receiver room. Not only did the club add Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in free agency, it also had to see Julian Edelman call it a career after 12 seasons and three championships.
Edelman may have started his career as a slot receiver, but he played a more flexible role than that; he regularly aligned as the Z or at times even the X option in New England’s passing offense. Still, he was at his best when playing in the middle of the field to take advantage of his quickness and ability to find weak spots in the coverage.
Needless to say that replacing the former Super Bowl MVP will be a tough challenge for the Patriots and their wide receiver position — one that uses the slot and Z-roles somewhat interchangeably at times, and with players usually not exclusively used in one of them. Heading into this year’s training camp, this should therefore make for an interesting competition.
WR Jakobi Meyers, WR Nelson Agholor, WR Kendrick Bourne, WR Gunner Olszewski, WR Isaiah Zuber, WR Kristian Wilkerson
All of the receivers listed here are capable of playing more than just one role in the New England offense, which makes the slot competition a rather intriguing one. While Nelson Agholor and Kristian Wilkerson are more X/Z types, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Gunner Olszewski and Isaiah Zuber can be seen as Z/slot players.
Three members of the group be seen as locks to make the team: Meyers, Agholor and Bourne will not be going anywhere. Olszewski, meanwhile, is in a similar territory based on his All-Pro play at the punt return position in 2020; his offensive contributions two years into his career are limited to just seven catches for 96 yards and a touchdown, however. Zuber and Wilkerson, on the other hand, have only four combined touches on their NFL résumé after spending their rookie seasons last year on New England’s practice squad.
Depending on a player’s status, the slot competition this summer will either be for playing time or a role in specific packages (Meyers, Agholor, Bourne, Olszewski) or a spot on the roster versus competition both in the slot and at the X and depth tight end positions (Zuber, Wilkerson).
The deciding factors
Given how interchangeably wide receivers are used at times in New England, some of the deciding factors closely resemble those listed in the X-wide receiver entry of our Training Camp Competitions series.
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 slot 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. The Patriots have had some issues in this area in both 2019 and 2020, with Edelman showing some inconsistencies as far as drops are concerned. The current squad also had some ups and downs recently: Jakobi Meyers had three drops last season; Kendrick Bourne had four, and Nelson Agholor had nine.
Technique: Given the Patriots’ usage of timing patterns, their pass catchers will face their fair share of press-man coverage again this season. Wide receivers being able to properly disengage and get past defensive backs is therefore key, so they will have to display proper technique to win their battles — something New England’s wide receivers had some issues with last year outside of Edelman. Luckily, the group will get a good trial-run in training camp considering the talent of New England’s secondary.
Fearlessness: Operating in the short areas and the middle of the field is a physically challenging task: bodies are flying around and hits are inevitable. The Patriots’ slot receivers therefore need to be physical and fearless: they cannot be afraid to get hit when running an underneath crosser or attacking up the seam, and have to learn how to properly absorb contact — and when to stop fighting for additional yardage.
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. Agholor, for example, has played both inside and outside the formation throughout his career — something that is also true for Bourne and Meyers, and to a lesser degree for Kristian Wilkerson as well. Olszewski, meanwhile, can be a game-changer in the punt return game.
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. Edelman was impressive in this area throughout his career, and never shied away from contact. If one of his heirs in the slot can also distinguish himself with his blocking he will certainly improve his chances of making the team.
Strictly based on his production in the system last season, Meyers should stay the Patriots’ leading inside receiver in 2021 as well. He showed a proper understanding of the system and good connection with starting quarterback Cam Newton, and was trusted with a prominent role even after opening his 2020 campaign as more of a depth player than a starter.
The question is where the other wideouts listed above fit. Nelson Agholor will likely be moved to the inside on a regular basis, but he should primarily become the main perimeter target — especially a) given the presence of starter-level tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, and b) X-receiver N’Keal Harry potentially getting traded. As for Kendrick Bourne, he projects as New England’s WR3 and a versatile inside-out player capable of lining up all over the formation.
With those three atop the wide receiver depth chart, the spots behind them will be left for rotational options. Regardless of Harry’s status, Gunner Olszewski should have a spot on the team based on his special teams contributions alone. New England getting more production out of him on offense would be a plus, though.
Isaiah Zuber and Kristian Wilkerson, on the other hand, might be on the outside looking in yet again. Zuber might have better odds, but given how the roster is currently built (i.e. including N’Keal Harry), he still is no more than a sixth option at the wide receiver spot. That might be enough to make the team, but he would have to prove himself more valuable than another X option or a fourth tight end.