With free agency and the draft firmly in the rear-view mirror and organized team activities underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran wide receiver Nelson Agholor.
Name: Nelson Agholor
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: 15
Opening day age: 29
Size: 6-foot-0, 200 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? After three impressive seasons at USC, Agholor decided to forgo his 2015 senior campaign in order to enter the NFL Draft. The decision was a good one as he heard his name called in the first round; the Philadelphia Eagles made him the 20th overall player and fourth wide receiver to come off the board. Agholor saw prominent playing time right away, and over the next few seasons developed into a productive member of the Eagles’ passing offense and top-two option at the wide receiver position.
Over his five years with the Eagles — Philadelphia opted to exercise the fifth-year option in his rookie pact — Agholor appeared in a combined 76 regular season and playoff games and caught 243 passes for 2,720 yards and 18 touchdowns. Unfortunately, however, he produced a sub-par season while playing for a new contract in 2019: Agholor posted his worst receiving numbers since his second year in the league, and eventually had to sign a minimum-salary deal with the Las Vegas Raiders as a free agent.
Agholor rebounded nicely during his lone season in Las Vegas and established himself as a bona fide deep threat in the team’s offensive system. Catching 48 passes for 896 yards — an impressive 18.7-yard average per catch — as well as eight touchdowns, he also set himself up nicely for yet another trip to free agency. Agholor ended up accepting a two-year contract offer by the Patriots at a total value of $22 million, but he was unable to duplicate his 2020 success in his first season in New England.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off arguably the best season of his career, Agholor was a somewhat hot commodity entering unrestricted free agency. The Patriots, who were among the league leaders in cap space during the Covid-19-impacted 2021 offseason, made sure to bring him aboard by giving him a generously-structured two-year pact at a baseline cost of $22 million. The deal guaranteed his spot on the roster, and reflected the club’s high expectation in his potential contributions.
However, Agholor did not quite live up to those despite being given regular opportunities. Serving as the team’s number one perimeter target, the former first-round draft pick appeared in 16 of New England’s 18 games and was on the field for 757 of 1,169 offensive snaps (64.8%) — second among the team’s wideouts. Agholor finished the season with 38 catches on 61 targets for 491 yards and three touchdowns, ranking fifth, fourth and third on the team in the respective categories. He also had three carries for 18 yards.
Agholor’s presence did add a vertical element to New England’s passing offense it had been missing in years past, and quarterback Mac Jones was not afraid to test the connection. However, the two first-year Patriots failed to build a consistent rapport — partially due to Jones, partially due to Agholor himself: while the rookie QB oftentimes simply misfired or failed to adjust to the leverage of downfield defenders, the wideout struggled at times against physical cornerback play and in contested-catch situations on the outside.
A late-season concussion that cost him two games in December also impacted his growth and contributed to what was already a difficult setting for him. Nonetheless, Agholor did have some encouraging moments as well. For example, he had a three-game stretch in October that saw him catch six passes for 138 yards and a touchdown, averaging 23 yards per reception. Additionally, he registered the lowest drop rate of his career: only one of his 61 targets went through his hands, resulting in a rate of just 1.6 percent.
What is his projected role? The Patriots used Agholor primarily as an outside receiver during the 2021 season, employing him as their number one option at the X spot. The offseason arrivals of DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton, however, might lead to the team giving him some different responsibilities this year: Agholor might get more looks as a Z and package-specific member of New England’s aerial attack, a role possibly better suited for his skillset. Regardless of where he lines up, though, he will likely continue to get plenty of opportunities to take the top off of defenses and free up space underneath.
Does he have positional versatility? Agholor has experience playing several wide receiver alignments, and his usage over the course of his career reflects this. The Eagles used him in the slot on 52.3 percent of his snaps compared to 47.7 on the outside, while the Raiders employed him on the perimeter 70.2 percent of the time versus 29.8 inside. New England continued this shift even more drastically: he spent 91.3 percent of his snaps on the outside of the formation last season, and only 8.6 in the slot. If the team indeed opts to modify his role, however, those two numbers might see some changes.
What is his special teams value? Even though he has the skillset to theoretically be used in the return game as well, Agholor’s special teams value is quasi non-existent. New England did not give him any special teams snaps last season and is not expected to suddenly start playing him in a prominent role in the game’s third phase. In total, he has just 25 kicking game snaps on his career résumé — all on the punt and kickoff return squads — as well as eight returns: he ran back five kickoffs in 2016 for an average of 18.4 yards per attempt as well as three punts during the 2018 and 2019 seasons for 2.3 yards a runback.
What is his salary cap situation? As part of the two-year deal he signed with the Patriots last offseason, Agholor carries a salary cap hit of $14.88 million in 2022 — the third highest on the team as well as the fifth highest among all NFL wide receivers. The pact includes a $9 million salary, $5 million signing bonus proration and up to $1 million in active roster bonuses, $882,353 of which classified as likely to be earned. Between his partially-guaranteed salary and signing bonus proration, $10 million of Agholor’s contract is guaranteed this year.
How safe is his roster spot? Agholor is being paid like one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, something he is not. Based on those bottom-line economics, his spot on the team appears to be in jeopardy. However, his contract structure limits the Patriots’ options: releasing him would create $10 million in dead cap versus only $4.88 million in savings. If the club wants to bring his salary cap down without taking on a massive dead money charge, it could either opt for a trade, contract extension or straight pay cut. An extension might actually be the most realistic of the three, but Agholor should not be expected to go anywhere even if he does not sign a new deal ate one point in the near future. If he can build his chemistry with Mac Jones, there is still hope he might turn into a more productive player — especially in a different role.
One-sentence projection: Even if his contract stays as it is, Agholor will be on the Patriots’ roster this season to ideally serve as more of a package-specific Z-receiver with some as-of-yet untapped potential.