The New England Patriots investing high draft capital in their wide receiver position has not happened a lot during Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach and de facto general manager. Only eight times since he took over in 2000 did the team invest what can be classified as an early-round selection — i.e. Rounds 1-3 — in the position.
A majority of those picks did not work out. Whereas Deion Branch (2002) looked good, Bethel Johnson (2003), Chad Jackson (2006), Brandon Tate (2009), Taylor Price (2010), Aaron Dobson (2013) and N’Keal Harry (2019) became either role players or major busts.
The jury is still out on the eighth of those selections, though: in the second round this year, the Patriots traded up to bring Baylor’s Tyquan Thornton on board 50th overall. Only first-rounder Harry and fellow second-round selections Johnson and Jackson were picked earlier than that, and New England is hoping for history not to be repeating itself.
Harry in particular is a cautionary tale. An exciting player in college, he never quite found his footing in the NFL. After three injury-plagued seasons and limited production, he was shipped to the Chicago Bears earlier this year.
This begs the question:
How can Tyquan Thornton avoid going down the N’Keal Harry route?
Obviously, Thornton and Harry are different types of wide receivers who brought different skillsets into the NFL. However, that does not make the former immune to flaming out. Instead, the lessons learned from the Harry debacle can help New England figure out a way to better make use of its rookie and put him on a path to success.
In order to get a different perspective, though, we asked Cale Clinton, co-author of the Football Outsiders Almanac — please click here to purchase your copy — in what is the third installment of our Q&A series. Here is what he said:
Create separation. If we’re comparing Thornton to N’Keal Harry, at least, because that’s what killed him in New England. Harry was touted as a field stretcher with strong contest catch ability coming out of Arizona State, but even an ability to catch in traffic gets rendered moot when cornerbacks are draped over you the whole route. Not only is Thornton’s speed going to be vital in helping him lose corners, but he can shed defenders through his route running much better than Harry ever could in New England.
Despite the high value of the pick used on Thornton, I don’t think he has as much pressure on him as there was on Harry in the first year. Harry joined a team with an aging Julian Edelman, alongside some additional secondary pieces in Phillip Dorsett, Mohamed Sanu, and Josh Gordon. He was expected to be a major spark for the offense. That spark never came. Thornton, on the other hand, is starting out behind Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Devante Parker and Nelson Agholor. Factor in tight ends and running backs, and he falls even lower on the target priority list. Thornton will get the chance to play behind Agholor this year with the chance to take over his role once his contract is up.
As far as the creating separation aspect of his development thus far is concerned, Thornton has looked pretty good. His elite straight-line speed has helped him get the better of defensive backs both in preseason and joint practices with the Carolina Panthers this week.
He still has a way to go, but from that perspective alone has shown some promise — promise that Harry never quite displayed despite his intriguing combination of baseline athleticism, size and physicality.
Part 4 of our conversation with Cale will focus on the New England play-caller situation.