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Sunday Patriots Notes: Will Nelson Agholor be the odd man out at wide receiver?

Related: Patriots’ practice habits have left Tyquan Thornton properly prepared for his preseason debut

New York Giants v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Football is finally back, sorta. The New England Patriots wrapped up their first game week of the year in a 23-21 preseason loss Thursday night to the New York Giants. Although a lot of the Patriots starters didn’t play much on Thursday night, there was still some good to take away from the defeat.

Their top-50 draft selection, the cornerback battle for playing time, and the Patriots’ revamped linebacker room were all on full display on Thursday. So, without further ado, let’s get into this week’s Sunday Patriots Notes.

1. Tyquan Thornton is developing into an impact player for New England. There’s no question Tyquan Thornton has had a lot of eyes on him given that the Patriots selected him in the second round in April’s draft. His dazzling speed and ability to stretch the field vertically stood out but in a crowded receiver room there were and still remain questions about how much action he’d actually see in his rookie season.

However, Thornton is making a strong case for himself and appears to be developing into a potential impact player for the team. Since we first saw him on the field in the spring, it’s been apparent that he is not only a threat down the field but a versatile receiver that can be effective at all three levels and can line up in several spots.

“We have a bunch of great guys that can make plays, that can do everything that you really dream of for having a receiver. He’s one of those guys,” quarterback Bailey Zappe said after Thursday’s game. “We have many of them on our roster. Honestly, all of them can do many things, and we have a great receiving corps.”

We saw in training camp early on his ability to win at the line of scrimmage with a wide variety of release moves he uses to create separation for himself. Assuming DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers are the team’s top three receivers, Thornton is starting to make the competition really interesting as we head into the final few weeks of camp.

He might be pushing for more playing time than many had expected as a rookie.

2. Is Nelson Agholor the odd man out in the revamped wide receiver room? Thornton starting to create some serious buzz might put some pressure on another wide receiver on the roster: Nelson Agholor. The Patriots have a lot of veteran names atop the position depth chart in DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and Agholor.

However, with Thornton continuing to string good days of practice together and guys like Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Tre Nixon and Kristian Wilkerson all making an impact on the field as well, this might push one of their veteran receivers off the roster.

The obvious name is Agholor. The wideout is entering the final year of his contract and would create a substantial amount of cap space if the Patriots were able to find a team willing to trade for him, as Miguel Benzan recently pointed out:

It’s not that Agholor has had a bad camp necessarily, and he is certainly one of the most respected guys in the team’s locker room. The NFL is a business, though, and it all comes down to money and whether or not a player can give you anything more other than experience over a guy like Thornton or, say, Tre Nixon.

Not counting special teamer Matthew Slater, the Patriots carried five wide receivers on their initial 53-man roster last year. They will likely carry more than that this season but is Agholor going to take a spot over someone else at another position that may need more depth?

There’s obviously a lot more questions rather than answers right now, but the situation certainly is an interesting one to watch.

3. Patriots’ younger and quicker linebackers pop. For the first time in two years, the Patriots don’t have a quarterback competition to pay close attention to. Instead a competition at another key spot is worth the attention: linebacker.

Against the Giants and with veteran Ja’Whaun Bentley inactive, the Patriots started out with Josh Uche, Raekwon McMillan, Mack Wilson, and Anfernee Jennings as their top options. From the opening drive of the game, it was apparent that the group was much faster and able to cover more ground than we had seen over the last few years.

Mack Wilson in particular was the one who stood out the most. His quarterback hit on Daniel Jones early on forced an errant throw to the end zone to help end the opening drive. Between Wilson and McMillan, the Patriots’ off-ball linebacker room looks like it may be able to slow down some of these high-powered offenses they’re set to face off against this year — something that was a problem in 2021.

4. A big night for Patriots’ rookie defensive lineman. It’s no secret that one of the Patriots’ deepest and more-talented positional groups is their defensive front. Led by veterans Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux and Deatrich Wise Jr. as well as second-year man Christian Barmore, the team should be much better in the trenches in 2022. Not only are Godchaux and Barmore in their second year in the system, the depth behind them also stood out versus New York.

Sixth-round rookie Sam Roberts and undrafted free agent LaBryan Ray flashed their versatility on Thursday night lining up at multiple spots and creating pressure from just about anywhere. Both have made an impact on the field this summer and could serve on the practice squad this season.

Their strong start to camp followed by preseason game No. 1 might even help them work their way into the roster discussion.

5. Aggressiveness pays off for Tre Nixon. Second-year wide receiver Tre Nixon entered training camp with plenty of hype after a strong outing in mandatory minicamp. He did not quite carry that momentum over, before a promising preseason opener.

Nixon finished with four catches for 81 yards. He also was on the receiving end of the Patriots’ longest play from scrimmage, a 36-yard completion from third-string quarterback Bailey Zappe.

Now was he able to deliver such a solid performance?

“I believe just playing at a high pace, attacking, being aggressive,” he said after the game. “The drops didn’t help obviously — one of them was on third-down, so did not help us stay on the field. I feel like this is what training camp is, what a preseason game is. Trial and error, just getting better every day and continuing to improve.”

6. Matthew Slater reveals when he first knew James White could be special. On Thursday morning, long-time Patriots running back and team captain James White announced his retirement via social media. White, who re-signed via a one-year deal in the offseason, was battling back from a gruesome hip injury that he suffered in a Week 3 loss last year versus the New Orleans Saints.

White walks away from football a three-time Super Bowl Champion, eighth in team history with 381 receptions, 14th in receiving yards all with zero career fumbles. Of course, his career achievements did not happen overnight: he built his résumé by being one of the most consistent players on the team.

Early on, however, White was merely a depth player: his 2014 rookie year was a de facto redshirt campaign for the fourth-round draft pick. Nonetheless, the Wisconsin product left a positive impression on his teammates that season as Matthew Slater noted in the aftermath of his retirement. One moment in particular stood out, the 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

“It was one of the few games he was active for that year,” Slater said. “I think he showed a great deal of poise and promise in a very bad situation. I think from there I kind of watched him and over the course of that year he had a great person to learn from in Shane Vereen. He just was like a sponge. Every detail that was taught he was able to retain and go out and apply on the field and that’s rare to see from young players.

“So, although he didn’t really get on the field much early on I think he showed flashes of what he could be and then obviously we all saw the player that he became. But really no surprise when you think back to it because of the person he is and continues to be.”

A model teammate, football player and man, White’s impact goes beyond the football field and the team will certainly miss his presence.

Next stop: The Patriots Hall of Fame.

7. Marcus Jones, future starting quarterback?

Marcus Jones didn’t play a single snap on Thursday night — that should tell you all you need to know about how much the Patriots value him this early into his career. If Jonathan Jones continues to primarily work on the outside this summer, Jones would be the next man up and therefore project as the team’s starting slot cornerback.

8. Which fringe roster players are worth keeping an eye on?

With the preseason opener as our base-line, you should make sure to keep an eye on the following group of players. They could decide their future with the Patriots over the next few weeks or carve out valuable depth roles:

  • Wide receiver: Tre Nixon, Kristian Wilkerson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey
  • Offensive line: Arlington Hambright
  • Defensive line: LaBryan Ray, Carl Davis
  • Cornerback: Joejuan Williams, Shaun Wade, Myles Bryant

9. Assessing Tyquan’s floor for the 2022 season.

I know throughout this article I praised Thornton’s start here in New England. However, let’s not fit him for a red jacket just yet and keep some perspective this season. Thornton, after all, will likely serve as the team’s fourth or even fifth wide receiver to start out the year, depending on the Nelson Agholor situation.

We will see him in certain packages and he could be utilized more in game-plan specific circumstances. Chipping in where he can, showing he can be relied on in crucial moments and slowly adjusting to the pro game before taking on a bigger role as the season progresses should be the three things Patriots fans should hope for with the second-rounder this year.