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Patriots 2022 offseason preview: New England’s wide receiver position remains a work in progress

Related: Patriots offseason preview: New England’s fullback position is in good hands

Jacksonville Jaguars v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Eight teams are left standing in the NFL postseason tournament, but the New England Patriots are not among them. They are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium after their wild card playoff loss in Buffalo.

It projects to be an interesting one for the Patriots. The team did go 10-7 in the regular season and returned to the playoffs, but it does face plenty of questions after its late-season collapse and with numerous starters in all three phases headed towards free agency. With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position at a time.

Today, we continue at the wide receiver spot.

Nelson Agholor

Age: 28

Experience: 7

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Agholor has a salary cap hit of $14.94 million in 2022.

2021 review: After an impressive one-year stint with the Las Vegas Raiders, Agholor joined the Patriots on a two-year, $22 million free agency contract in March. Serving as the team’s number one perimeter target, the former first-round draft pick went on to appear in 16 games and play 759 of a possible 1,169 offensive snaps — second among New England’s wide receivers.

Agholor finished the season with 38 catches for 491 yards and three touchdowns, ranking fifth, fourth and third on the team in the respective categories. While he did add a vertical element to New England’s passing offense it had been missing in years past, his production did not live up to his hefty price tag.

2022 preview: Agholor remains under contract with the Patriots through 2022, but his salary cap number of almost $15 million is significant for a team currently just $3.7 million under the cap. The team has ways to reduce this number — ranging from an extension, to a trade, to a straight-up release — but the fact that $5 million out of his $9 million salary are guaranteed does limit its options.

Kendrick Bourne

Age: 26

Experience: 5

Contract status: Under contract through the 2023 season. Bourne has a salary cap hit of $6.42 million in 2022.

2021 review: After having spent. the first four years of his career with the San Francisco 49ers, Bourne joined the Patriots on a three-year, $15 million contract. Serving as New England’s WR3 in terms of playing time, the former rookie free agent produced a quality season while showing some good chemistry with rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

Appearing in all 18 of the team’s games, Bourne ended the year ranked second in receptions (62), receiving yards (877) and receiving touchdowns (7). A versatile member of the Patriots’ offense and high-energy locker room leader, he also gained 125 yards on 12 rushing attempts and contributed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor in a Week 7 win over the New York Jets.

2022 preview: Possibly one of the most impactful wide receivers to change teams in free agency last year, Bourne is expected to keep a prominent role in New England’s passing offense heading into his second season in the system. Playing on a manageable contract — his salary cap hit is ranked 11th on the team — it would not be a surprise to see him make a sizable second-year jump alongside sophomore QB Mac Jones.

The 2021 season was already the best of Bourne’s career, but he could very well outdo himself next season. At the very least, he will continue to be a true go-to guy and safety blanket for the Patriots’ young passer.

N’Keal Harry

Age: 24

Experience: 3

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Harry has a salary cap hit of $3.21 million in 2022.

2021 review: After a tumultuous offseason — from his agent’s trade request to turning heads in training camp — Harry produced another disappointing season. Starting the year on injured reserve after suffering a shoulder injury in preseason, the former first-round draft pick ended his third NFL campaign as the fourth player on the depth chart.

When all was said and done, Harry had caught only 12 passes for 184 yards while serving primarily as a blocker rather than a legitimate downfield passing threat. In fact, a significant portion of his production (two catches and 54 yards) came from backup quarterback Brian Hoyer in mop-up duty. Harry and starting QB Mac Jones, meanwhile, never appeared to establish a rapport.

2022 preview: Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Harry should not be expected to suddenly turn his career around and live up to the natural expectations coming with a first-round draft selection. He showed his talent in flashes but it has become clear that he is not a player to build around.

So, what will happen? Harry’s future will likely be tied to that of the wide receiver position in general. If New England adds more players in free agency and especially through the draft, it would not be a surprise to see him get either released or traded over the summer. Regardless of what happens, Harry’s time with the Patriots is closer to its end than its beginning.

Jakobi Meyers

Age: 25

Experience: 3

Contract status: Set to enter restricted free agency on March 16.

2021 review: Coming off a breakout campaign in 2020, Meyers continued to be a cornerstone of New England’s offense in 2021. Not only did he lead all wide receivers in playing time — being on the field for 987 of a possible 1,169 offensive snaps — he also ranked first in receptions (89) and receiving yards (906). Furthermore, Meyers caught the first two touchdown passes of his professional career.

Meyers did have some ups and downs throughout the year but he did establish a solid connection with Mac Jones in their first season together. He also continued to have success when called upon as a passer: the short-time college quarterback completed both of his attempts for a combined 45 yards.

2022 preview: A restricted free agent this offseason, the Patriots have four options how to handle Meyers. They can either place the first-, second- or original-round tender on him or not tender him at all. Considering Meyers’ status as a former rookie free agent, the original-round tender would merely give them the right of first refusal rather than any compensation in case he leaves for another team.

As a result, it would not be surprising to see New England use the second-round tender at an estimated cost of $3.99 million. While this would give other clubs an opportunity to sign him away, it would more than likely keep the 25-year-old in the fold for at least another year.

How that year will look like remains to be seen, though. Meyers has served as New England’s WR1 for most of the last two seasons, but he might be better suited in a more specialized role. Obviously, though, the rest of the offensive skill position talent will help determine how the Patriots’ coaches will use him moving forward.

Tre Nixon

Age: 23

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season after signing a reserve/futures deal.

2021 review: Hand-picked by since-retired Patriots research director Ernie Adams, Nixon joined the team in the seventh round of the draft. After seeing action in two preseason games and catching a pair of passes for 11 total yards, Nixon was released on cutdown day and later signed to the practice squad. He spent his entire rookie season there and did not see any game-day action.

2022 preview: New England signed Nixon to a reserve/futures contract after its playoff exit, giving him another chance to compete for a roster spot in 2022. While he will face some stiff competition considering the players under contract, he should at the very least get more opportunities to get on the same page as Mac Jones and maybe carve out a role as a depth receiver either on the 53-man roster or, more likely, the practice squad.

Gunner Olszewski

Age: 25

Experience: 3

Contract status: Set to enter restricted free agency on March 16.

2021 review: One year after earning first-team All-Pro status as a punt returner, Olszewski had a more quiet season. The former rookie free agent still served as New England’s featured return man on both punts and kickoffs, though, and therefore saw regular action in the kicking game.

All in all, he ran back 26 punts for an average of 11.9 yards per return as well as 18 kickoffs for 23.1 yards per attempt. His punt return average went down significantly compared to 2020’s 17.3, while his kickoff return average remained virtually unchanged.

At the wide receiver position, Olszewski played only a marginal role. He caught two passes for 31 yards and also had a 9-yard run.

2022 preview: Just like Jakobi Meyers, Olszewski is headed for restricted free agency this year. As opposed to his teammate, however, he is no guarantee to receive one of the three tender offers. New England could use the lowest of the three — the right of first refusal — at a cost of $2.33 million, but given his specialized role it appears more likely that he will be allowed to hit unrestricted free agency come March 16.

The Patriots could still bring him back at that point. The difference would be his price tag: it might be significantly reduced if re-signed through the open market rather than via an RFA tender.

Malcolm Perry

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season after signing a reserve/futures deal.

2021 review: A seventh-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins who appeared in nine games during his 2020 rookie season, Perry joined the Patriots when he was claimed off waivers in early September. He was moved to injured reserve due to a foot injury a short time later, and eventually released in mid-November.

After a one-month stint on the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad, Perry returned to New England via reserve/futures contract. He did not appear in any games during his sophomore campaign.

2022 preview: Perry will get a chance to compete for a roster or practice squad spot with the Patriots this year, but his outlook remains murky. After all, the former Navy quarterback has yet to prove himself as an NFL-level wide receiver. He should not be expected to suddenly become the next Julian Edelman, especially considering that his pre-draft measurements were comparatively pedestrian.

Matthew Slater

Age: 36

Experience: 14

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 16.

2021 review: While New England’s special teams unit as a whole struggled in 2021, its team captain had another quality campaign. Slater finished his 14th season in the league as the Patriots’ leader in kicking game snaps — 373 of 464 — and registered 13 total tackles, second to only Cody Davis’ 15.

Slater also continued to serve as a prominent voice in the locker room. With the Patriots transitioning from the Tom Brady era to the Mac Jones era, his leadership as a team captain was again crucial.

2022 preview: Slater has a decision to make this offseason: continuing his career despite turning 37 in September, or heading off into a well-earned retirement. The veteran stated that he would take time before making a call, with the March 16 deadline one to watch: if he remains unsigned at that point, Slater is headed for unrestricted free agency.

That being said, he will not leave New England. The question is therefore whether he will return on a presumed one-year deal, or hang up his cleats.

Kristian Wilkerson

Age: 25

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season after signing a reserve/futures deal.

2021 review: After spending his entire 2020 rookie season on New England’s practice squad and appearing in just one game, Wilkerson saw more action as a sophomore. The former rookie free agent, who again served a member of the Patriots’ developmental roster throughout the year, was elevated to the game-day squad on four occasions.

Seeing action in three games, Wilkerson played a marginal role early on: he was on the field for a combined seven snaps in Weeks 9 and 16. In Week 17, however, he played 60 snaps and caught four passes for 42 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

2022 preview: The Patriots retained Wilkerson on a reserve/futures deal after their departure from the playoffs, which will give him another chance to carve out a role on the roster or practice squad. His performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars was promising, but the 25-year-old needs to show up on a more consistent basis before realistically breaking into the regular rotation.