There’s sticking to your draft board, and there’s admitting your roster-building mistakes. If you’re lucky, sometimes you can do both in one shot.
And the New England Patriots have to be hoping rookie second-round pick Tyquan Thornton, he of the fastest 40 at the combine, from Baylor University, can be that two-fer.
Make no mistake about it, the Patriots and Bill Belichick have coveted a burner wide receiver that can stress a defense vertically for quite a while now. They may not say it in as many words, but just look at the free agency dollars and trade targets, and to make it more specific, let’s narrow it down to the last 5 seasons.
2017: The Patriots trade for Phillip Dorsett after acquiring Brandin Cooks right before the draft, which paired up a route technician that also happened to be able to torch cornerbacks in a straight line in Cooks with a fellow first-round talent in Dorsett, and left Chris Hogan as the lowly third-fastest receiver on the team running a 4.5 at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds.
Holy smokes, this Patriots receiver corps is now LUDICROUS SPEED:— Goose (@GooseOnBass) September 2, 2017
Brandin Cooks: 4.33 40 yard dash
Phil Dorsett: 4.25
Chris Hogan: 4.50
2018: The Patriots trade Brandin Cooks after the season for a first-round pick, but also end up trading for Josh Gordon, who was *allegedly* running a 4.3 40-yard dash as recently as 2018, in addition to being, you know, 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds.
Also, the Patriots rolled the dice on the occasionally high-flying Cordarrelle Patterson in the 2018 season, who ended up being quite a useful contributor on a Super Bowl champion squad, just not exactly in the way we all expected.
2019: (insert Antonio Brown joke here)
But seriously though, even though it sounds like a tall tale now, you have to keep in mind that even though AB wasn’t a burner by reputation when he was signed by the Patriots almost immediately after being cut by the Raiders, he still struck fear into the hearts of defenses across the NFL for being the 5-foot-10, 180-pound receiver that could still body your 6-foot-0 cornerback and toe-tap in the end zone at that point.
Also, Phillip Dorsett and Josh Gordon were both on the Week 1 roster for this team.
2020: Strapped for cap space and badly needing to retool the wide receiver corps after the Mohamed Sanu face-plant and N’Keal Harry turning out to be the worst-case scenario of drafting a receiver like N’Keal Harry, Bill Belichick signed 4.28 40-yarder Damiere Byrd, which, you may laugh, but Byrd set career highs with 604 yards and 47 catches. Surely I don’t have to remind you who was throwing the football in 2020 either, do I? Good. That’s what I thought.
2021: Finally, that brings us to 2021, when Bill Belichick once again crushed on a player that owned the Patriots in relatively recent history. Nelson Agholor, who torched the Patriots in the 2017 Super Bowl to the tune of nine grabs and 84 yards, signed with New England for two years and $26,000,000.00. In a frustrating development, he was unable to replicate the 18.7 yards per reception he logged with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020, and turned out to be largely the same wide receiver he’s been all along:
There. Like Deadpool says, all caught up.
Enter rookie wideout Tyquan Thornton, who’s guaranteed a roster spot on the 2022 Patriots by virtue of the second-rounder they traded up to get and then spent on him. And while at least a couple of the concerns regarding his measurables are valid on paper — including the elephant in the room of not being built like prime Larry Fitzgerald — a thorough review of his game from Baylor offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes will hopefully cure what ails you in the “concerns” department.
First off, a note: since, as northeasterners, a lot of us don’t exactly binge-watch a lot of Big-12 football, just purge everything about the 2010s Baylor offense from your brain. Suffice to say, they’re not running the spread-and-shred/Air Raid/whatever you want to call it five-wide offense that they did under Art Briles, nor is any remnant of the Matt Rhule offense around any longer. According to Grimes, the current Baylor offense is a straight pro-style affair, which should already put Patriots fans slightly more at ease with a Big-12 wide receiver prospect.
Phil Perry caught up with Baylor offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes earlier this week on his excellent Next Pats Podcast, and we’ll skip straight to the good stuff:
Phil: So I’m curious, Jeff, and number one, when you use the word ‘candor’, when you’re talking about the Patriots, this is a place that lives off of candor, it feels like, and it’s usually from the coaching staff to the players, but I’m sure it’s appreciated in both directions. But it is interesting to me that you, and I’m sure others, did some digging in terms of where you thought Thornton might end up being taken in the draft and what his pro prospects were this offseason. So I’m curious; were you surprised when the Patriots ended up taking him in the second round? Not just because, I guess I’d love to get your reaction about the team fit and the marriage there, but also that he was a second-round player.
Jeff Grimes: Yeah, I would start by saying if you had asked me that before the combine, I might have said yeah, that would surprise me. I heard, honestly, everything. Everything from “this guy could be a high draft pick” to “this guy could be a really low-round, possibly even a free agent pick.” There were concerns about his size, about his frame, and, I’ve been coaching college ball for a bunch of years and have talked through this process with a number of college players. And I got as large a variance and opinion on him as I have on any player. But then I think the big turning point for him was the combine. He goes up there and he smashes his 40, and he shows people that he really can run, and I think that changed things for him. And then what typically happens is everybody goes back and they look at the tape again, and I think his stock rose rapidly after that. And so I think post-combine, I wasn’t really surprised. Prior to that, I probably would have been, just because there was such a wide variance, and this was on the very upper end of that.
Great. Combine, shmombine. Can he play? And more importantly, does the speed actually apply to real football?
Phil: I’d love to get from your perspective, somebody who watched him so closely, obviously in-game but, on the practice field, offseason, things of that nature. Just how fast is Tyquan Thornton? Is there a story that pops to mind for you that best illustrates that trait that he so obviously has?
Jeff Grimes: I don’t know if there’s any one story. I just know every time I called a play that sent him deep, I asked myself “Why am I not doing this more? Why am I not running this guy deep and throwing the ball up to him every other play?” Because he has the unique ability to separate, and you know, with his height and his long speed, he’s an impressive guy once he gets going.
OK great, let’s get to the brass tacks. Thornton weighs roughly the same as Mookie Betts despite being approximately five inches taller. Is that going to work? CAN it even work?
Phil: I would love to ask you to, you mentioned his frame, and some of the concerns there that people in the league had about his frame. What would you say to those people? Did it ever show up for you all at Baylor, and how do you think his frame will play at the next level?
Jeff Grimes: I would say, number one, I think Ty is the kind of kid that is driven, and wants to be good, and he wants to please you. He’s not a kid that wants to fight his coaches or fight people who have his best interests in mind. And so, I would say if people are encouraging him, or setting a goal for him, and then helping him put a plan in place, I would say first that I think he’ll match that with his effort.
And then the second thing I would say is just that Ty, like a lot of college players, is still a work in progress. The year before I got here, I think he had like 15 or 20 catches, and he wasn’t a guy that was a huge weapon. He wasn’t a guy that had a ton of production. And then this year, he really jumped out, and he had that breakout year, so to speak.
But I think that this year was a work in progress still for him, and so the ability to get off press, the ability to be physical and block in the run game, you know, we do run a pro-style system, I would say, one that requires receivers to do things that a number of NFL teams do. And so there were challenges for him within that, but he worked to meet every challenge, and I’m sure he will this one the same.
More on the “Can’t you just put on 15 pounds, bro?” aspect:
Phil: Did you guys ever push him, in terms of off the field. Was it constant, or was it ‘man, you’re a fast player, we don’t want to do anything to make you less fast, so whatever your body type, it is and we’ll work around that’. How did you guys handle that as a coaching staff?
Jeff Grimes: Well, we tried to get him to put some weight on, and I think he put a little bit on during the year that I was here. But, you know, for some of those guys, it’s hard. It takes a lot of work and a lot of energy, and sometimes it’s harder in a college environment, it’s harder than it is once they turn pro.
Last but certainly not least, Phil asked Jeff about a sliding Thornton deep bomb from Brian Hoyer between a corner and a safety in OTAs, and what’s the non-speed trait that’s going to make Thornton successful as a Patriot.
And if you’ve been keeping track of the laundry list of complaints about Patriots wideouts in the post-Brady-to-Edelman era — lack of separation, getting bodied on the line of scrimmage, catching over the middle knowing you’re going to take a shot, and really, just not being able to get freakin’ open — this is the chef’s kiss.
Jeff Grimes: I think what you’re saying is where I would go next. So I would say two things. So if you had just asked me that question cold, I probably would’ve said for a guy as long as he is, he does have good quickness. A lot of those guys have a little bit slower feet, it takes them a little bit longer to get going. And he can get off of press, even though he’s thin, because he has good quickness and he can get his feet going in a short amount of time.
The thing you alluded to would be something that I would point out as well. He’s comfortable catching the ball in traffic. A lot of guys that aren’t the biggest, especially a guy that’s built like him, you’re a long, tall target, and if you didn’t have courage and you didn’t understand how to work your body within tight windows, might be a little bit nervous when you’re having to catch a ball in there. And we didn’t just throw him the ball deep, we threw him a bunch of balls underneath. And I think about a lot of the slants, he played X for us for the most part. We did move him around a little bit, but that puts him on the single side for us, often into the boundary and on the line of scrimmage. So we threw him a bunch of slants, and those windows sometimes, either between a corner and WILL linebacker, or a safety and a linebacker, those are tight windows, and sometimes it’s a bang-bang play where it’s the ball, and contact. And there were very, very few instances where we threw him a ball in traffic, in one of those tight windows, that he didn’t come up with it, and even when he didn’t, he never shied away from making the play.
That’s as high-grade Kool-Aid as we can hope for this time of year.
Enjoy the weekend. Go Celtics.