The New England Patriots entered the 2022 offseason with one clear need on the offensive side off the ball: they had to improve their wide receiver corps to put quarterback Mac Jones in the best possible position to make the famous second-year jump. The early days of free agency, however, did not see the team address the issue.
While the Patriots did explore the market and were linked to big-name players such as Allen Robinson, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Odell Beckham Jr., they did not pull the trigger. The only player added was veteran running back/wide receiver-hybrid Ty Montgomery on a low-cost two-year contract.
While Montgomery helped raise the group’s floor, he did little to significantly improve Jones’ supporting cast. Such a move happened two weeks into the new league year when the Patriots swung a trade to acquire former first-round draft pick DeVante Parker.
New England sent a third-round pick in 2023 to the Miami Dolphins for Parker and a 2022 fifth-round selection. Despite the investment being a relatively minor one both in terms of draft capital given up and contractual obligations acquired, the 29-year-old receiver is an intriguing addition to a Patriots offense that lacked what he brings to the table during Jones’ rookie season: Parker is a legitimate perimeter target.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 219 pounds, Parker offers a size element that none of the Patriots’ wideouts last year had. His addition therefore instantly brings another element to a receiving corps that relied on Nelson Agholor — a smaller but speedier option outside the numbers — to fill the X-receiver role in 2021.
With Parker now in the fold, however, the Patriots have a true X at their disposal that can challenge defenses deep and should be able to draw attention away from the middle of the field. His combination of size and skillset is why, and one New England head coach Bill Belichick also touched on during a press conference back in 2020.
“DeVante’s got a very, very good skill set,” he said at the time. “He’s a big athlete that runs well. Has good hands. Good run after-the-catch ability and good quickness for his size. He presents a lot of problems on deep balls. He’s a big target on intermediate routes, in-cuts, crossing routes, and things like that. He’s strong and can break tackles as a catch-and-run player, so he attacks all three levels of the defense and can be productive in all three spots.”
While Parker has shown that he can successfully play the Z and slot roles as well, the Patriots appear well set in those areas: Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers have shown some good chemistry with Mac Jones already, while Nelson Agholor might benefit from a change of role to more of an X/Z as well.
As for Parker, he will likely be asked to predominately play the top spot on the outside. And the Patriots have seen first-hand what he can do in that role.
The following clip from last year’s regular season opener is a perfect example:
Matched up one-on-one against New England’s top cornerback at the time, J.C. Jackson (#27), Parker was allowed an outside release towards the sideline. The advantage in that situation belongs to the defender, because the window to attack with a pass is getting smaller the closer the intended target gets to the boundary.
Jackson has proven himself a master at using the sideline, but Parker is still able to come away with a 30-yard reception to move the chains in this particular third down situation. How? By using his superior size and leaping ability versus the 6-foot-0 defender
Jackson is well-positioned when the ball arrives, but quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (#1) knows that he cannot get up as high as his receiver. The Dolphins’ QB therefore places the ball high and outside of the danger zone: it either ends as an overthrow and incompletion, or in the arms of Parker.
The latter is what happened, with the receiver out-jumping Jackson for the ball while simultaneously keeping his feet in bounds for the catch. Making receptions outside of his frame is something that Parker does very well, and it is also something New England had been missing in its offense.
Bourne, Meyers and Agholor are solid possession receivers, but low-percentage passes in their vicinity are just that. Parker, on the other hand, raises the odds in such situations and is more than capable of winning 50-50 jump balls even when closely covered.
Take a look at the following play from Miami’s loss to the Buffalo Bills last year:
The Bills are putting cornerback Levi Wallace (#39) on an island with Parker in their two-deep man coverage look, and the play unfolds similar to the one versus New England above. Parker is pinned to the outside, significantly lowering the odds of a completion, but he is still able to make the grab due to his leaping skills and ability to track the ball in the air.
A smaller wide receiver would have had a hard time coming away with the pass in a situation like this; Wallace is playing some tight underneath coverage. Parker, however, combines size with a 36.5-inch vertical jump which in turn a) keeps windows open that otherwise would have been shut, and b) significantly increases the room for error for the quarterback.
Whereas a pass to a smaller wideout would need to be on-point to earn a completion in this case, Parker’s presence gives the QB more options to place the football. Mac Jones is a very accurate thrower already at this point in his career, but even he had a hard time completing throws versus tight man coverage on the outside last year. Adding Parker should make his job a lot easier when targeting this part of the field on deep jump-balls or back-shoulder throws.
Speaking of those, Parker has proven himself capable of creating explosive plays on back-shoulder passes:
Back-shoulder plays are some of the hardest to pull off in the NFL, because the timing and ball-placement need to be on point. Furthermore, the receiver has to be able to win at the top of the route and get reset quickly as the ball arrives.
The above play against the New York Giants is perfectly executed in this regard. It looks structurally similar to the two passes versus the Patriots and Bills shown above, but it still differs due to the back-shoulder element: the defender, cornerback Aaron Robinson (#33), is following Parker stride-for-stride and not trying to get himself in position underneath, which gives the wideout space to stop and turn for a 17-yard reception.
In general, Parker has shown plenty of nuance in his receiving skills. He is a serious deep threat and commands attention when streaking down the sidelines, but is not a one-trick pony à la fellow Patriots wideout N’Keal Harry.
Take the following play from Miami’s win at Gillette Stadium last September:
With the Patriots showing an off-man Cover 3 look, the Patriots are putting cornerback Joejuan Williams (#33) in a favorable position against a deep play down the sideline. However, the coverage shell creates some space underneath — space Miami is able to exploit by running a slant-flat combo to the play side of the field.
Parker is running the slant right in between Williams and Adrian Phillips (#21), finding space for a sizable gain on a catch and run. This play is not just and example of how he can be a threat on intermediate routes as well, but also how fast he can transition from receiver to runner: Parker’s abilities to create yards after the catch cannot be underestimated.
On the following play, this skill is on display as well:
Levi Wallace, who previously gave up the big completion down the sideline, is back-pedaling just before the ball is snapped to get in a better spot versus a potential deep throw against Buffalo’s one-deep shell. However, Parker is attacking in a different way: he runs a quick hitch to get open in the short zone.
Wallace could have kept the play to a minimum gain, but Parker showed some good balance to take advantage of the cornerback’s highly motivated tackle attempt. This, in turn, allowed the wideout to gain seven more yards after the catch.
The NFL is a league filled with deception, and showing one thing while doing another is a key to successful offensive and defensive play. Parker’s skillset allows him to do just that as well: his size and physicality at the catch point make him a dangerous player on deep routes down the sidelines, but he also is versatile enough to become a target in the short and intermediate parts of the field to break tendencies.
Wallace fell victim to that on this play. He was burned deep on an earlier pass and adapted, but so did Parker to gain space underneath.
In general, he has shown an ability to react well to what the defense is giving him. The play above is an example of him capitalizing on Wallace’s bail-out, the next has him find a soft spot in Buffalo’s zone coverage:
Fellow wideout Albert Wilson (#2) moving across the formation before the snap indicates zone coverage, and Parker knows how to react. He runs a simple comeback route to the second level, adjusts his positioning after Tua Tagovailoa’s pump, and hauls in the catch for a simple 8-yard gain. Nothing fancy, but fundamentally sound football.
The Patriots will likely use Parker similar to how the Dolphins employed him: primarily on the perimeter but not just on deep patterns or jump-ball passes (see: N’Keal Harry). While he is not as versatile a weapon as Jakobi Meyers or Kendrick Bourne, he still has plenty of tools in his toolbox that New England’s offensive staff can use to its advantage.
Granted, time will tell how quickly and successfully Parker will function in the team’s system. That being said, the foundation is an enticing one despite question marks such as a long injury history, style of play inevitably leading to some pass-breakups, and occasional concentration drop.
At the end of the day, however, Parker’s win percentage will be high and he will make a ton of grabs he has no business making. He therefore gives the Patriots a type of receiver they have sorely lacked ever since days of Josh Gordon in 2018 and 2019: a big-bodied wideout who can run well and adds a new element to the offense.
In turn, he should make the jobs of everyone around him easier — that includes fellow wide receivers Meyers, Bourne and Nelson Agholor, as well as tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. Most importantly, though, Parker provides a nice security blanket for Mac Jones.
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