Coming off a disappointing first season with the New England Patriots, Nelson Agholor finds himself right in the middle of the famous second-year jump. The veteran wide receiver, who arrived via a two-year, $22 million contract last March, has been one of the team’s best players through the first two weeks of the 2022 season.
Agholor has caught nine passes for 138 yards and a touchdown so far, despite effectively serving as New England’s WR3 when measured by playing time. While his output does not stand out in a league-wide comparison, Agholor has become one of the most productive wide receivers in football in one particular statistic.
He is among the league leaders in beating man coverage this year. According to ESPN’s Seth Walder, he is averaging 4.71 yards per route run versus man looks — one of the highest numbers in the league for players with at least 20 such routes.
Obviously, YPRR is not the be-all and end-all of wide receiver assessment. And, yes, Agholor has also played a more specialized role than some of the other wide receivers on the leaderboard.
That all said, he has proven himself a valuable member of the Patriots offense in an area the team has struggled in the last few years. So, the question now becomes what has happened. How has Agholor been able to turn from limited role player to productive complementary piece this year?
The answer is three-fold: his experience, the way New England is using him, and his skillset.
For one, Agholor has more experience in the Patriots’ scheme now. He was repeatedly not on the same page as quarterback Mac Jones during their first year together in 2021; as a result, the wideout finished with just 38 catches on 61 targets for 491 yards and three touchdowns — not the production New England was investing in.
Year 2, however, has seen him build a better connection with his QB. That was already the case in training camp, and it has translated into improved regular season production as well.
Additionally, the Patriots have changed his role. While he spent 91.3 percent of his snaps on the outside of the formation last season, and only 8.6 in the slot, he has been moved around more this year. Of his 66 offensive snaps, 44 have come split out wide (66.7%), 21 out of the slot (31.8%), and one saw him align in the backfield (1.5%).
The sample size is limited, but this change of usage has helped Agholor quite a bit. Just look at the following play from the Week 2 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Agholor (15) is originally aligning in the left-side slot against cornerback Cameron Sutton (20). With safety help over the top, Sutton is playing Agholor with outside leverage to open the door to to the middle of the field. However, the wideout has the speed to get free from this alignment — in large part because of the play-action concept run by the Patriots.
The play-call, after all, holds weak-side safety Terrell Edmunds (34) just long enough for Agholor to gain a favorable angle on him and Sutton. While the defender does react quickly, he cannot prevent a window from opening that Jones and Agholor are able to exploit.
The following play works similarly:
Here, Agholor aligns on the right side of the formation. He faces a different cornerback, Levi Wallace (29), but still is given inside release. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) not coming up quickly enough — a difficult decision given his responsibility as the lone deep man — contributed to another window opening.
The play above gained 25 yards. This one ended with New England moving 16 yards down the field on the Jones-Agholor connection.
Using him closer to the formation has also helped the 29-year-old draw more favorable matchups such as the following:
On this 2nd-and-10, Agholor aligns just detached off left tackle Trent Brown (77). After the snap, he chips edge defender DeMarvin Leal (98) before releasing into his route.
Agholor runs a shallow crosser while matched up 1-on-1 with linebacker Myles Jack (51). Jack is a good athlete at the position, but the wide receiver still has a speed and space advantage: not only is he faster than Jack and coming from a favorable angle, the route distribution also cleared out the space he was heading toward.
Jack was eventually able to trip Agholor to keep the gain to a relatively modest nine yards, but the potential for a significantly bigger play was there. Had Mac Jones’ pass led the receiver just a bit more to the outside, and had he evaded the trip, Agholor might have gained enough yardage to at least move the sticks.
All of those plays illustrate how the Patriots have been able to put Agholor in advantageous situations versus man looks by simply altering how he has been employed (something we already suspected would happen after the DeVante Parker trade).
Scheming players open against man coverage goes beyond simple alignment switches, though. Sometimes plays are also drawn up for particular players and their respective skillsets. The following 17-yard play against the Miami Dolphins is an example of that:
Agholor is originally matched up with Dolphins cornerback Keion Crossen (27) in a press-man alignment. Once he moves to the inside against Miami’s Cover 0 look, Crossen has to mirror his motion; this creates space between the two players and allows Jakobi Meyers (16) and tight end Hunter Henry (85) to serve as a convoy on the screen pass.
Agholor makes the most out of the play. He turns upfield quickly and gains 20 yards after the reception on the catch-and-run. He is able to do that by reading his blocks well and bouncing the edge behind Henry.
The Patriots have schemed Agholor open quite a bit against man coverage looks, but they also trusted him to win his 1-on-1s when they presented themselves. His 44-yard touchdown grab versus the Steelers is a perfect example of that:
Agholor aligns on the right-side perimeter against Pittsburgh’s No. 1 cornerback, Ahkello Witherspoon (25). The wideout stacks Witherspoon while releasing into his route, which opens a path down the sideline. The defender actually recovers quite nicely, and is competitive throughout the stem of the route.
However, Agholor has an advantage Witherspoon does not have: he only has to play the ball, whereas the defender also has to play the man opposite him. On this play, Agholor can be seen slowing down a bit at around the 30-yard line before accelerating again at the 20; he sees the pass is coming and adjusts accordingly.
This adjustment helps Agholor gain a small step on Witherspoon and eventually out-leap him to make the catch. Six yards later he is in the end zone for his fourth touchdown as a Patriot.
Agholor out-muscling defenders on a play like this is not a regular occurrence, but it also shows what he can and did do against man coverage. His production is therefore not just the result of favorable situations and scheme, but also of him taking advantage of his skillset and the opportunities he has been given so far this year.
Of course, both Agholor and the Patriots offense as a whole still have a long way to go. The hope for the team, however, is that the wideout can keep up this early momentum and continue to win his matchups — both against man or zone.