After surprising fans and analysts alike with their first-round selection — Chattanooga offensive lineman Cole Strange at No. 29 overall — the New England Patriots went full “I’ll f--kin do it again” meme in the second round as well. Moving up from the 54th to the 50th spot in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, the team picked wide receiver Tyquan Thornton out of Baylor.
A legitimate speedster who ran the fastest 40-yard dash among all wide receivers at the Scouting Combine at 4.28 seconds, Thornton was listed as a Day 3 prospect on most big boards. The Patriots obviously had a different opinion and brought him aboard a lot earlier than anticipated.
Despite his pre-draft projection, Thornton is an intriguing prospect who adds a dimension to New England’s offense that it had been missing ever since the days of Brandin Cooks. His speed, after all, is rare and he can challenge defenses deep in a way that no other pass catcher on the current roster can.
However, Thornton is more than just a speedster. Both he and Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh pointed that out shortly after he was drafted.
“This isn’t just a linear guy,” Groh said. “You see him really be able to get off the line. And for as fast as he is ... to be able to see him get in the red zone and do some things, and it’s not just speed, it’s 6-foot-2, ability to get up and really pluck the ball out of the air. So, there’s going to be a lot of different things that he’s going to be able to do to help.”
What exactly does he bring to the Patriots offense, though? Let’s take a look at the film to find out, starting with the following reception against West Virginia.
Aligning at the X-receiver spot versus an off-man coverage look, Thornton (#9) quickly accelerates and eats the cushion given to him by the defensive back. His ability to get up to speed in an instant in combination with the Mountaineers’ safeties biting hard on the Z crossing the formation put the defense in a no-win position.
Thornton, after all, is just too fast to be left without any deep help against off-man. On this particular play, he simply flips his hips to keep his distance to the defender and go on a post route with the middle of the field wide open.
His straight-line speed can definitely put fear in defenses who are trying to load the box on early downs or are too aggressive versus misdirection concepts.
A more promising recipe for success against Thornton is to challenge him at the line of scrimmage in press-man alignments. Thornton, after all, has neither the bulk nor the play strength to consistently stand his ground against stronger, more refined cornerbacks.
While that might become a problem versus NFL-level competition, getting held up at the line of scrimmage was a rare occurrence during his college career. Thornton, after all, combines quick feet, speed variation, anticipation, head fakes and competitive hand fighting to stand his ground when challenged while releasing into his route.
Take the following play against TCU as an example:
Thornton uses a quick stutter-step to set up the cornerback before releasing to the outside. However, he is able to get the defender’s left arm off of him after initial contact to gain inside leverage. At that point, the play turns into a foot race.
Not many defenders will be able to win one of these against Thornton. Had the pass been placed better — i.e. in front of the receiver to allow him to keep his stride — the play would have had the potential to go for a touchdown.
The same is true on the following incompletion versus Oklahoma:
The defensive back is pressing Thornton at the line of scrimmage, but he gets past him by initially disguising his intentions; he squares him up rather than commit to one side right away. He then fights off the attempted jam by using a sort of swim move to disengage. Just like the previous play, this turns into a one-on-one track race that favors a wide receiver as fast at Thornton 100 percent of the time.
On the following play, Thornton wins by getting the defender to commit to an inside release before breaking out to the boundary. The play is an easy pitch-and-catch touchdown:
Combining active hands with agility (despite running a disappointing 7.25-second three-cone drill at his pro day) allowed Thornton to counter press-man time and again versus Big 12 competition. Naturally, the NFL is a different beast altogether but the foundation is still a promising one.
Even when he isn’t successfully stacking defenders upon releasing into his route, though, he can still be a dangerous pass catcher:
Here, Thornton shows excellent concentration and sideline awareness to haul in the back-shoulder ball for a touchdown. This rep is more competitive through the stem of the route, with this particular defender not giving up as much cushion as those shown above. However, the newest Patriots wideout has the reach to still make a play for the ball here.
In that sense, he is similar to his new teammate DeVante Parker. While Parker was 20 pounds heavier upon entering the league, the two have almost the same height at a shade under 6-foot-3 as well as exactly the same arm length (33 1/4”) and vertical jump (36 1/2”).
Both the former first-round draft pick and New England’s second-round rookie have the ability to out-leap defensive backs in jump-ball situations. That is not the only similarity between the two, however.
Just like Parker, Thornton also is a slant machine.
On this play versus Kansas, the defender is playing five yards off and back-pedaling after the ball was snapped. Thornton takes advantage by running a slant, and despite the pass arriving late is able to haul it in and keep his momentum going forward.
In general, he has shown the ability to extend and adjust to throws outside his frame while showing the toughness and concentration to finish through contact. He also fights for extra yards and can hit home runs on plays like these if given too much space to operate with.
So, to go back to the question posed above: What does Thornton bring to the Patriots offense?
Obviously, speed is his biggest asset. He can absolutely fly down the field, something he showed repeatedly at Baylor and also at the East-West Shrine Bowl. Teams have to respect his ability to attack the deep parts of the field, which in turn might help things up in other areas.
Beyond his 4.2 speed, Thornton also offers solid agility and hand technique at the line of scrimmage to succeed versus press-man looks. How he will fare against NFL cornerbacks remains to be seen, and there are concerns about his frame and mediocre play strength (hence his pre-draft projections). As a result of those, Thornton is a rather unclear projection.
Everything from becoming a viable big-play threat to joining a string of disappointing second-round receivers appears to be in the cards for the 21-year-old. The Patriots obviously believe in him and his game-breaking potential, and if they are proven right: look out.