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NFL free agency 2023: How will the Patriots replace Jakobi Meyers?

The 26-year-old is joining the Raiders on a three-year deal.

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Both in terms of playing time and production, Jakobi Meyers was the New England Patriots’ No. 1 wide receiver the last three seasons. In 2023, however, he will be wearing a different team’s uniform: Meyers will sign a reported three-year, $33 million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders at the start of the new league year.

The former rookie free agent leaving thins out the herd at wide receiver a bit. In fact, only five players remain under contract at a position that is very much a need at this point.

Relying on the in-house talent is not the only option for the Patriots. They also could explore the trade market — Denver’ Jerry Jeudy is a potential candidate to fill the WR1 shoes worn by Meyers — or look elsewhere in free agency or the draft. The team does have ways to replace the 26-year-old even though doing so will certainly not be easy.

With that said, let’s explore the three non-trade areas we can assess to find out who is or is not suited to fill Meyers’ role.

In-house options

As noted above, the Patriots currently have five wideouts under contract. Not all of them are necessarily suited to play the same role as Meyers, but at least the first three of them might be able to increase their target shares and develop into more focal points within the passing offense.

DeVante Parker: The 2022 trade acquisition did not necessarily put up gaudy numbers in his first year with the Patriots — 31 catches for 539 yards and three touchdowns — but he had some solid moments and was a bright spot in an oftentimes uninspired passing game. Parker will not fill Meyers’ shoes as a Z/slot hybrid, but he has the abilities to serve as an attention-grabber and a deep threat on the outside of the formation.

Kendrick Bourne: As the Patriots receiver room is currently constructed, Bourne would probably take over Meyers’ role as the go-to guy and No. 1 interior receiver in the offense. He has a good connection with quarterback Mac Jones and despite a disappointing 2022 season was actually one of New England’s more productive wideouts last year. If new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien can get him back on his 2021 trajectory (just like Jones), the 27-year-old is capable of making a positive difference.

Tyquan Thornton: A second-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2022, Thornton caught just 22 passes for 247 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, he had his moments last season and showed that he can successfully attack the field vertically and challenge defenses due to his rare speed. The question is whether or not New England sees him more as an X like he was used at Baylor, or as a Z-receiver.

Tre Nixon: Nixon was a standout performer during offseason workouts last year, but was unable to build on his success once the pads came on. He spent all of 2022 on the practice squad, and should probably not be expected to suddenly break out in Year 3.

Lynn Bowden Jr.: Like Nixon, former third-round draft pick Bowden Jr. also spent 2022 on New England’s developmental roster. He offers intriguing versatility, but in three years in the NFL — and with three different teams — he has yet to produce at a consistent level.

The Patriots also have two other players on their roster carrying the wide receiver label. However, Matthew Slater and Raleigh Webb played a grand total of 15 combines snaps on the offensive side of the ball in 2022 and did not register any statistics. They are on the roster because of their special teams contributions, not their receiving prowess.

In addition, the Patriots also have another wide receiver who is on the free agency market. Nelson Agholor, whose two-year contract with the team is set to expire on Wednesday, is also subject to the NFL’s legal-tampering period.

Free agency options

As is the case with the Patriots’ in-house options mentioned above, not every player on this list is necessarily a fit to play the same role as Meyers (i.e. primarily inside the formation). If New England does want to reinvent itself from a receiving corps perspective they, however, they would still make sense as either starting-caliber options or rotational pieces.

Parris Campbell (UFA): After a quiet first three years in Indianapolis, Campbell broke out in 2022. His 63-catch, 623-yard season that also saw him score three touchdowns set him up well for free agency. He will not break the bank even in a depressed receiver market, but has some potential as a rotational piece.

D.J. Chark (UFA): A former second-round draft pick who had a bounce-back season of sorts with the Detroit Lions in 2022, Chark has the size and speed to attack the field from the X-receiver position. The 26-year-old would likely not compete for a starting spot, or fill Meyers’ role in the lineup, but he might find a role as a package-specific deep threat to help complement the returning cast of wideouts.

Kenny Golladay (UFA): As opposed to the other players on this list, Golladay is not entering free agency via an expiring contract: the New York Giants are planning to release him after he caught just six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown in 2022. This means that he will not count against the compensatory draft picks formula if picked up, which might just be worth a low-level flier just to see whether or not he can return to the levels of play he showed earlier in his career.

Mecole Hardman (UFA): An abdomen injury bothered him for much of the season, and contributed to Hardman having the worst statistical season of his career. However, the Kansas City Chiefs wideout should still find a robust market as a speedy and experienced inside/out receiver with a track record of production.

Deonte Harty (UFA): Harty was limited to only 24 snaps over four games in 2022. The year before that, however, he had 611 yards and three touchdowns on 41 touches. His size — 5-foot-6, 170 pounds — might be an issue for teams, but he has shown that he can make plays against NFL competition. Like Meyers, he is capable of playing in the slot and at the Z-receiver spot.

Mack Hollins (UFA): Hollins had a relatively nondescript career over his first four years in the NFL before breaking out in 2022 with the Raiders. Playing in a Patriots-like scheme under head coach Josh McDaniels, he caught 57 passes for 690 yards and four touchdowns. While not a WR1, his 6-foot-4, 221-pound frame makes him an interesting package player — and a potential departure with Las Vegas now investing in Meyers.

Richie James (UFA): James’ career progression is a lot like Mack Hollins’ albeit on a smaller scale, literally. At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, he is more of a slot guy than a perimeter receiver. With a 6.87-second three-cone time, however, the Patriots might just give him a look to help fill Meyers’ role as the primary slot receiver.

Zach Pascal (UFA): Pascal showed some promise earlier in his career, when he was still with the Indianapolis Colts and used primarily in the slot. His one-year stint in Philadelphia in 2022 was a disappointment, but the hope is that he would regain his mojo in a new environment. Additionally, the 28-year-old offers some special teams value.

Darius Slayton (UFA): Another member of the Giants offense, Slayton was a much more productive player than Kenny Golladay in 2022. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound wideout caught 46 passes for 724 yards and two touchdowns, crossing the 700-yard mark for a third time in his four seasons in the league. With Meyers now off the board, Slayton projects as one of the more popular free agency wideouts left on the market.

Juju Smith-Schuster (UFA): One of the top-tier wide receivers available this year alongside Meyers, Smith-Schuster offers a similar skillset and would be able to fill the Z-receiver spot in New England’s offense as well. The question is how much more cost-effective signing him would really be: the Patriots did not keep Meyers on an average of $11 million per season, and Smith-Schuster commanding that would not be a surprise. There is no denying he can be a productive player, though.

Olamide Zaccheaus (UFA): A former undrafted free agent, Zaccheaus improved every year since entering the NFL in 2019. The 2022 season was his best to date, seeing him catch 40 passes for 533 yards and three touchdowns for the Atlanta Falcons — a team that used the likes of Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder at quarterback. At 5-foot-8, 193 pounds, Zaccheaus is on the smaller side but he has shown he can be a successful Z.

Needless to say that the free agency class of wide receivers extends beyond those players. However, they appear to be the best options to help replace Meyers in 2023 and potentially beyond.

Draft options

While there are dozens of wide receiver prospects available in this year’s draft, our focus is on the higher-rated prospects. The Patriots could take a late-round flier on somebody and see him pan out, but it would also make sense for them to make an earlier investment either in a classic WR1-caliber receiver or a rotational guy.

Jordan Addison (USC): Even though he had a disappointing outing at the Scouting Combine, Addison is among the best wide prospects available in this year’s draft. A potential chain-mover at the next level, he has proven his abilities to get open despite not being the most explosive player. As a result, he very well could come off the board as early as Round 1.

Josh Downs (North Carolina): Downs put up impressive numbers in college and is the best pure slot receiver in this year’s draft. He is likely not an attractive option for every team, but the Patriots appear to be among the potential suitors for his services.

Xavier Hutchinson (Iowa State): Hutchinson knows how to use his hands and make difficult and contested catches — a skill he will likely need at the NFL level given that his separation skills are a question. That said, he offers some good size and could develop into a solid matchup and package receiver.

Jalin Hyatt (Tennessee): Tennessee’s WR1 put up some impressive numbers last season — 67 catches for 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns — and has the athleticism to make a name for himself at the NFL level. Like current Patriot Tyquan Thornton, he is on the smaller side but offers a rare mix of speed and agility.

Zay Flowers (Boston College): He may not look the part at 5-foot-9, 182 pounds, but Flowers has the potential to make a positive impact from Day 1 on. The possible late first-/early-second-round pick is impressive with the ball in his hands and could be a plug-and-play replacement for Meyers at the slot/Z role.

Quentin Johnston (TCU): Measuring at 6-foot-3, 208 pounds, Johnston combines impressive size with an explosive athletic skillset. Needless to say that he is a big-play threat on the perimeter, and projects as a both a first-round draft pick and a starter-level X-receiver in the NFL.

Marvin Mims Jr. (Oklahoma): At 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, he might not look like a classic X-receiver in the mold of Quentin Johnston, but Mims Jr. certainly can play that position as well. He needs time to develop, but can be a dangerous player when attacking deep or getting into the space with the ball in his hands.

Jayden Reed (Michigan State): Reed might not be the most impressive athlete, but he certainly has an intriguing skillset. The 5-foot-11, 187-pound wideout is primarily a slot option, but he can wear several hats in an offense.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Ohio State): The former Buckeye was limited to just three games last year due to a hamstring injury but was perhaps Ohio State’s best receiver the season before, hauling in 95 receptions for 1,595 yards and nine scores. Smith-Njigba is a tactician of a route runner and could thrive as a slot receiver in New England’s offense. His lack of straight line speed has been a question mark, but he’ll likely be a first-round pick come April.

Cedric Tillman (Tennessee): The second former Volunteer on this list, Tillman is a big-bodied player who is best on the outside of the formation. He will be more of a complementary piece and is coming off a challenging season marked by a nagging ankle injury.

The wide receiver position in the draft this year lacks the same blue-chip talent it featured in 2021 and 2022, for comparison. However, players such as Quentin Johnston, Jaxon Smith-Njigba or Zay Flowers in particular project to fit in well with what New England is trying to do on offense.